“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath!” (Mt 3:7)\
If we were to make the Gospels into a play, the character I would want to play would be John the Baptist. He undoubtedly would have the coolest lines: “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees!” (Mt 3:10) or “The one who is coming after me is mightier that I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (v. 11), or: “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire!” (v. 12). Really – who doesn’t like a line that ends with “fire”?
If any of us ever came across John the Baptist, we would probably be calling 911 to report a crazy man on the loose. He is wandering around the desert, wearing a robe made out of camel’s hair – and this isn’t camel hair like those soft tan coats that used to be really popular. No, we are talking about a raw camel hide that would have been itchy and matted from not havin been washed. He has a leather strap around his waist like a kind of belt, and he is eating bugs and wild honey. The man is only two steps above a wild bear! And yet, this is he of whom the Lord said, “among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11). The Gospels report that everyone is going out to John to be baptized as a sign of repentance for their sins.
The recipients of his harsh words today – “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath!” – are the Pharisees, the Jewish religious authorities who are pushing a strict allegiance to Jewish purity laws as the way to salvation, while failing to live up to their own high expectations. John accuses them of the sin of presumption – they believe that they will be saved because they are Jews. But John makes clear that salvation from sins is not the kind of thing one can be “born into.” He tells them, “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (Mt 3:9). His words are a good reminder to us to question our own self-importance, our sense of being necessary to others.
John makes clear to the Pharisees that there is an urgency to repentance: “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.” Christ is about to come! Many of us can become stressed because of the impending arrival of Christmas – the presents haven’t all been purchased and wrapped, the Christmas roast hasn’t been ordered, the cards haven’t been sent out, the house hasn’t yet been decorated. And yet John the Baptist makes clear to us today that the urgency that comes with gift-buying and decorating is nothing compared to the urgency with which we must repent of our sins. “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.”
At this point you’re probably thinking, “Father, getting ready for Christmas is supposed to be a joyous affair, but you’re making it sound like a big downer! What happened to the wolf being the guest of the lamb and the lion eating hay like an ox?” This is, in fact, the irony of the Gospel. That promise of peace, the promise of life in Christ’s peaceful kingdom, is being opened to us through Christ’s coming, but entering into that kingdom requires a good deal of sacrifice. The Gospel today doesn’t exactly end on a positive note: “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” (Mt 3:12).
John is using an analogy that is probably not all that familiar to us, that of threshing grain. If you’ve never been involved in harvesting grain, it involves grinding the wheat stalks to release both the kernels that can be ground to become flour, and also the useless chaff, or outer protective material that helps the grain grow. A woven basket with an open end on one side was then used to shake the grains and separate off the chaff, which is good for nothing expect fuel for the fire. Nowadays this is all done with heavy machinery, but until recently it was done by hand.
This is the image of Christ with which we are presented today: Christ the judge with his winnowing fan in His hand, ready to separate the good grain fit for storing in His heavenly barns and the chaff fit for burning in unquenchable Hellfire. If you’re familiar with the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic you might remember the line, “He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.” This is precisely to what this line is referring. While this is the closing line of today’s Gospel, it is not by any means a Gospel without hope. Fire comes up a lot in this Gospel, but it is not only with reference to the fires of Hell – there is also the fire of the Holy Spirit.
John tells us: “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” (Mt 3:11). The repentance to which John the Baptist calls us in this rather dramatic way is not just a repentance of sorrow for our sins, of beating our breasts and lying in sackcloth and ashes. It is a repentance that leads to new life because it leads to Christ.
John the Baptist did not invent the connection between water and repentance. The Jewish people were already familiar with the concept of being cleansed with water, and perhaps, some scholars speculate, even with the concept of being immersed in water as a sign of repentance for sins, which could explain part of John’s success. But John here gives it a radically new focus when he foretells the Baptism of Christ: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” This is the essential difference between the baptism administered by John and the Sacrament of Baptism that we have been so fortunate as to receive: John’s baptism is merely a sign of the repentance of those who receive it, but Christ’s Baptism has the power to bring about what it signifies. Those of you who can remember the classical definition of a sacrament (or St. Charles 8th graders who remember religion class from last Wednesday – ahem … ) will remember that sacraments are not just signs, they are efficacious signs. They bring about what they signify – in this case, a true cleansing of our sins.
So what is the point of all this? The point is that, like the people of John’s day, we too must repent of our sins, because for us too “even now the ax lies at the root of the trees!” ready to cut down those trees that do not bear fruit. But unlike the people who experienced the baptism of John, our repentance comes with the hope brought by the One who baptizes not only with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Repentance is not just sorrow for our sins – it is the hope of new life that is already living in us by virtue of the baptism we have received, so long as we keep that divine life alive by repenting of any mortal sins we might commit.
(This is why the Church earnestly desires that children be baptized in the first weeks of their lives – not the first years or even the first months, but the first weeks, so that all children may have this divine life in their souls.)
Of course, the most fundamental way in which we must repent of our sins is by confessing our sins in the Sacrament of Penance. There are many extra opportunities to receive this sacrament during the season of Advent, including our parish penance service on Wednesday of next week at 7:00 p.m. We also offer confessions every Tuesday morning during school drop-off time, Thursday evenings, and Saturday afternoons.
Repenting of our sins, though, isn’t just something we do when we go to confession. It should be a daily part of our lives. Whenever you realize that you have sinned, when you feel those pangs of the conscience, the voice of God speaking in your soul, you should immediately turn to the Lord and express sorrow for your sins and ask Him to help you resist those temptations or impulses to that sin in the future. At the end of every day we should stop to recollect the times that day that we have sinned and ask the Lord’s forgiveness (if we have committed any mortal sins, we should resolve at that time to go to confession as soon as possible in order to be restored to the Lord’s grace and have His help to resist the assaults of the Devil that we are powerless to resist without God’s grace). We can also recognize in this examination of conscience the good deeds we have done each day and the ways in which the Lord has assisted us by His grace, and so give thanks to Him for that help. For parents, guiding your children (however old!) through an examination of conscience would be an excellent addition to your evening prayers, either daily or at least on a weekly basis. Remember, it is the role of parents to evangelize their children! It is not enough merely to tell them what to do – you must guide them in doing it and model it in your own life.
The Pharisees who make an empty show of repentance are met with a strong rebuke: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath!” This Advent is a great time for us to re-commit ourselves to the Lord by confessing our sins and seeking ways to grow in our devotion to Him, especially as a family. If you took one of those blue Advent devotional booklets two Sundays ago, praying those devotions as a family is a great way to do that. If we turn back to the Lord with all our hearts by confessing our sins and seeking to grow in virtue by examining our consciences daily, we will bear good fruits and will not have to worry about the ax laid to the tree’s roots. Rather, we will be met by Christ the loving and merciful judge and we will rejoice to enter His heavenly kingdom, “for,” in the words of the prophet Isaiah today, “His dwelling shall be glorious” (Is 11:10).
The Rev Royce V Gregerson
Parish Church of St Charles Borromeo, Fort Wayne
II Sunday of Advent, AD MMXVI