The other night I was at a wedding rehearsal dinner. At the table I found myself at, there were a lot of friends of the bride and the groom – including a few they knew from their Catholic Young Adult group. Honestly, this group of Catholic Young Adults is probably the model of what so many of our graduates from here are looking for after being a part of Newman for 4 years.   A group of peers who are serious about their Catholic faith. They have times that they gather for Eucharistic adoration, they have bible studies and Theology on Tap (which is kind of like our Newman Nights but at a bar) as well as just social gatherings. Really was just incredibly impressed with the whole program and all the people I was able to meet. In fact, that’s how the bride and groom met. So at our table was this group of Young Adult Catholics and there was also sitting right next to me a very good friend of the groom, who I’ll call Bob, who’ve known each other for years. That Bob didn’t really know the rest of the people at the table – and all the guys were all going to be ushers for the wedding piqued their interest. Being friends and of similar ages how had their paths not crossed before? Why hadn’t they met him at Adoration or Trivia night or something?

Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT- December 4, 2022, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing Sincerely in Christ – Father Jim

It turns out Bob, was as he described it, raised in a Protestant Church but now had given up on all organized religion and was a fallen away Christian. The reason I know all this was that the Catholic friends at one point -after a few drinks I might add- got into what started out as a conversation about matters of faith with this guy. It started innocently enough, people were respectfully listening to Bob describe that he appreciated things about his Christian upbringing and there were things he admired about the Catholic faith. But then very slowly things got a little more lively and turned into a mini-debate. Questions like “well what don’t you like about the Catholic faith?” “What do you mean that you gave up on organized religion?” “You don’t consider yourself Christian anymore?” “You just talked about how you read Dante’s Inferno, aren’t you afraid of going to hell?” It started to seem or feel like an interrogation.

Now, having thankfully survived a plane ride (in case you don’t know I have a ridiculous fear of air travel that I hate to admit still causes severe mental stress) – I uncharacteristically had decided not to have even a glass of wine… I was exhausted, I wanted to get a good night’s sleep to be in tip-top shape for the wedding and all. So I share that because not that everyone else at the table was drunk or anything like that, but I could hear and see how loose the conversations were flowing along with the wine. The Catholics at the table were very sincere and genuine in that they wanted Bob who was a friend of their friend the groom to enjoy the beauty of our faith and the importance of it to our eternal souls. I truly believe they didn’t realize how aggressive they were getting and how defensive Bob was becoming. And I sincerely don’t think that the focus on Bob was intended to be a modern-day inquisition (the original inquisition being one of the things Bob’s cited as his problem with religion) But I couldn’t help but feel more like I was on Bob’s side of this now-debate then my fellow Catholics.

Because at the heart of all that Bob said revealed a man who is searching, who is seeking. As dinner was now served and people returned to their respective seats and corners and it was more just Bob and I sitting next to each other and he was still trying to process all that just happened with a Catholic priest who was a complete stranger sitting next to him – he said something like “well I guess if I die tomorrow Fr. Jim and all of you are right I’m going to hell.”

It’s kind of hard to say “pass the bread” after someone says something like that. In a lot of ways, this rehearsal dinner from the other night reminded me of what we find here in today’s Gospel.

Every year we hear about the figure of John the Baptist during these middle weeks of Advent – and for the most part, we assign him to simply the role of the one preparing the way for Jesus. Which in Catholic trivia or a quick quiz in CCD would probably be enough to say it’s a correct answer. But what exactly was John doing in helping to prepare the way for Jesus?

John the Baptist was a man who was striving for holiness himself. Being a cousin of Jesus, having been born into a family that had the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph as relatives is pretty spectacular and would be an obvious blessing to his own faith life. But, not to forget that his own parents were devout, faithful Jews as well.  Zechariah had been a High Priest, Elizabeth his mother a humble prayerful woman. When Elizabeth conceived John in their old age after Elizabeth was long thought sterile and beyond the child-bearing years, and an angel delivers that news to Zechariah in the temple, he doubts this and expresses his doubt to an angel. – Just let that sink in – Zechariah is a priest. He is in the temple, the holiest place in the world, the only place they believed God dwelt on earth among His people… Zechariah is performing his temple duties – and when an angel appears to him and tells him that finally the greatest of longings his wife and he had carried through years of married life that they had thought were long dead and would simply remain unfulfilled – when an angel tells Zechariah the impossible was happening, he doubts. Long story short – Zechariah would see, would experience the truth of what God would accomplish.

But it is important to remember what Zechariah’s biggest mistake was. What he had been doing as a religious Jewish priest wasn’t wrong up till that point. But he didn’t realize how narrow his view had become. He had stopped searching for God because he thought he found him and knew him. Which he had to a point. But only to a point. And at that point, Zechariah was limiting God to something very containable, comprehensible, explainable, and manageable. Zechariah didn’t realize in so doing, he was missing so much more of the beauty, the vastness, the mystery not to be understood, the questions not meant to be answered but to be moved to wonder and awe over who God truly is.

That is John the Baptist’s background. So now when you put these details in – he’s out in the wilderness, so he’s basically renounced the things of this world knowing how passing, how futile they are… he’s living on locusts and honey and dressed in camel hair – St. Matthew isn’t just trying to paint a picture but it’s his way of telling us he was living a life of fasting and prayer. He’s not on a street corner in downtown Jerusalem, he’s in the desert of Judea.  And we hear people were going out to him? Why?

Because they too were searching. Something was off for them in their religious practices. Something wasn’t quite clicking for them in the preaching and teaching they were receiving. The religious leaders and teachers of their time – the Pharisees and Sadducees – had them maniacally focused on following rituals and purity laws which were based on commands of the Lord and started off coming from a good place. They knew that it had been their ancestor’s disobedience that had throughout millennia that precede them that had caused them disaster upon disaster, heartbreak, and destruction. So now the religious leaders and teachers of their day went to the other extreme in terms of being faithful and obedient. Arguing over the most minute of details. Not realizing they had limited their visions of God – they were making Him something containable, comprehensible, explainable, and manageable as well.

Too often when I’ve come to this Gospel I’ve found myself looking at how he just goes after the Pharisees and Sadducees calling them a brood of vipers (which was a devastating insult, to be honest). But the only reason that seems so dramatic is that it seems so surprising. That they the Pharisees and Sadducees the so thought experts who wouldn’t need any advice from this eccentric man in the wilderness get called out in such a way. But what John the Baptist reminds us is that the life of faith is not something that we ever completely “get” on this side of life. God is constantly calling us to look out further, to have our visions expanded. To being moved to wonder and awe at all He is, all He does, and all He wishes for us to experience and accomplish. To never think we’ve got Him figured out.  To never stop searching for Him.

My experience the other night at that rehearsal dinner made me realize how easy it is for us to do that. Like I said, I don’t think the Catholics at the table trying to convert Bob was a modern-day brood of vipers. But I could imagine for Bob it might have felt that way. As providence would have it, Bob would end up driving me back to the hotel after dinner. A 20-minute car ride turned into close to an hour due to late-night road construction delays. And he talked about all kinds of things, like his cars and how he was keeping the car we driving running which is 25 years old and at 200,000 miles I was selfishly very interested in at this point, his job. He couldn’t have been more patient with the traffic and having to take me, this complete stranger out of his way from home to a hotel to save an Uber fee.

One of the things I said to him before saying goodbye after the wedding, wasn’t just thank you for being so thoughtful and generous in providing the ride. But thank him for reminding me that all of us aren’t meant to ever believe for a second that we’ve got God all figured out. And just to keep sincerely asking questions, to keep close to the bride and groom, and be as open and vulnerable to talk about them perhaps not with so much wine and in a more peaceful setting.

Which is the purpose of Advent and what John the Baptist means to prepare us for. Yes, in Jesus Christ, we have found the Way, the Truth, the Life. I believe that with every fiber of my being, such that I’ve laid down my life trying to faithfully live in that mystery. But I know my own journey has had some peaks and valleys, twists and turns. And I know that’s not been done perfectly on my part, so despite the teaching and authority I’ve been entrusted with as a priest, I need to hear John the Baptist’s words as much as the most basic of newcomers searching for meaning, for a relationship with God or even a basic understanding of who He is which starts with the word: REPENT. How have I allowed my heart and mind and vision to be turned away from pursuing God, how have I narrowed my focus? What do I need to let go of? What do I need to confess and be forgiven of? All so that I may come to know, to experience, to love Jesus in a new way this Christmas?

Thanks again for visiting this blog.  Quick commercial, we’re in the midst of our Christmas 2022 Appeal for Newman Catholic trying to raise $30,000 this season.  This past week’s Giving Tuesday brought us close to $10,000.  We’re so grateful for your consideration and support – If you’d like to donate via paypal, our link is HERE – THANK YOU! Father Jim