2nd week of Advent: Faith is uncomfortable
Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. John wore clothing made of camel's hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Reflection: Faith is uncomfortable
Reading through this Gospel made me instantly uncomfortable. Just the thought of St. John the Baptist in that camel hair clothing was an instant “yuk”. More seriously, though, as I continued through the Gospel, the discomfort continued: from acknowledging sins to the calling out of the duplicitousness of the Pharisees and Sadducees and threats of being chopped down. All of these ideas and visualizations made me squirm. Isn’t Advent a time of “comfort and joy”? Where is the feel-good in this Gospel?
The culmination of it is the baptism by the Holy Spirit and fire. Everything is meant to be cleansed. Our faith is one of “both/ands” and this symbolism is no exception. Fire is dangerous. It burns, it is indiscriminate in what it torches, and it can reduce the mightiest structures. But as we know, after the destruction of a fire comes new growth, new space, and new possibility. How are baptism by water and baptism by fire all that different? After all, water is also a both/and. Floods are disastrous, its depths are mysterious, and drowning is a real danger humans face. Yet water is well known for its cleansing properties, and from it life came forth on earth. It is incredibly sustaining; we cannot live without it.
We still practice this baptism by water, with the understanding that Christ has transformed the act into a sacrament which is very effective and necessary for our salvation. We also recognize that “fire” eventually comes. Trials of doubts, pain and death come our way. Are we indeed confirmed in the Holy Spirit to handle this fire? Many of us are confirmed in the Roman Catholic Church as teens or young adults. This completion of the baptismal promises most of our parents made for us at birth brings upon us the same Spirit which brought tongues of fire to rest upon the apostles at Pentecost.
In our marriage there has been no doubt that the graces of confirmation have continued to strengthen me as we navigate our toughest trials. I sometimes wonder if I would have succumbed to the struggles long ago without the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit through the fire. Life with Christ, this side of heaven, will necessarily stretch and scorch to the core. This is probably not the best sales pitch to Christianity. St. John knew that as well as he fearlessly called the Pharisees and Sadducees to repentance. He tests their motivations and understanding. We will necessarily have to die to ourselves in those waters and in that fire, but you will come out irreversibly changed. Are you ready?
Pray and reflect
This week, pray and reflect on the following points:
Have I called to mind the graces of my confirmation when I feel most tested in life?
Do I see trials of fire in my life as destructive or transformative?
What do I need to do to prepare for new growth? What destructive habits need to be chopped down and set afire?