Christ is born! Glorify Him!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“’There cometh after me One mightier than I, the strap of Whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I indeed have baptized you with water, but He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’”
We learn from St. John’s Gospel that this John was sent by God to bear witness of the Light that shines in the darkness, “that all through [John] might believe.” John, however, as great as he was, was not the true Light which gives light to every man, but was instead a witness to the Light (Jn. 1:1-13). In this time of the year, there are two great lights of which we speak, just as there was in the creation of this world: a greater light and a lesser light (Gn. 1:14-19). The light of the Baptist, as great and as important and necessary for the coming of the Messiah, must needs decrease in the light of his Master and Saviour, while the light of Jesus Christ must now grow and increase in its intensity in this world and in each and every one of us (Jn. 3:30). For Jesus Christ alone has Light and Life because He Himself is Light and Life. “[A]nd the darkness did not comprehend it” (Jn. 1:5). But, to all who did see and believe in the Name of the Son of God, He gave them power – divine power, power from Heaven, born again power – to become the sons of God, who were born of God (Jn. 1:12-13; 3:3, 5-8). To this the Forerunner and Baptizer of our Lord draws our attention, “’I indeed have baptized you with water, but He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’” Jesus stoops to don the flesh of His creature so that His creature might don His divine nature by grace. John’s baptism of the water of repentance leads to the remission of sins in Jesus Christ and through Him which leads the repentant sinner to the gift and the grace of the Holy Spirit – the divine fire outpoured on every believer in the Mysteries of Holy Baptism and Chrismation, making us partakers of the divine nature (2 Pe. 1:4), the adopted sons of God (Co. 2:9-15).
John’s preaching and teaching, his prophetic life and ministry, prepared the way for the Lord and for all who desire newness of life and heart. He told all who would prepare to meet their God, like the Prophet Amos of old (Am. 4:12), that repentance was key, a turning away from sin and darkness to the light of God and His righteousness. “If you wish to receive the Messiah,” he bellowed, “repent! Lay aside your sins and be baptized for the remission of sins the Son of God brings with Him! If you want the salvation offered in the flesh of God, offer up fruits worthy of repentance! But, beware! You cannot fool the Almighty with feigned repentance! His fan is in His hand and He is prepared to thoroughly purge His threshing floor. The wheat He will gather unto Himself; the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt. 3:7-12; Lk. 3:7-14).
The ancient prophecies of the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, foretold the salvation He would bring. “’He will save His people from their sins’” (Mt. 1:21). That’s what the angel said to Joseph. But, His people must want their sins to be taken away. They must want to lay them aside, never to pick them up again. They must want to be set free from the bondage of the chains of sin and not to return to the perceived delights of Egypt which are really delusions. And, then, they must surrender and yield their hearts and souls and minds to the divine Light piercing their darkness. Repentance must needs lead to amendment, to fruits worthy of repentance. It is not only John who calls for it, but so does the Apostle Paul, as well as our Lord (Ac. 26:20). A repentance without such, so the Fathers teach us, is in actuality no repentance. We must mean business with God. “’Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart,’” the Prophet Moses commands Israel and then cautions them, “’and be no more stiff-necked’” (Dt. 10:16). A stiff-necked people is what the image conveys: a stubborn, willful, strong-willed and rebellious child. The people – we – must give up our stiffed-neckness, our self-will, if we are to follow Jesus.
If we wish to share in the salvation of Jesus Christ, we must repent and confess our sins in order to break the sin-cycle in our lives. This is how we do it, again and again and again. This is the preparatory ministry of John still today. Still today, he leads us to the Saviour, to God’s great Light, to God in the flesh of man. Still today, he points us to the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world and Who baptizes with the Holy Spirit (Jn. 1:29, 33, 36). Still today, his prophetic message rings loud and clear, but only those who believe can receive it. We should not under-value confession of our sins in our salvation we yearn for. The Sacred Scriptures certainly don’t depreciate it. Repentance must be vocalized and sins named. Getting it out on the table, so to speak, is how we gain mastery over that which binds us spiritually. The devil, like so many monsters, prefers secrecy and darkness. Confessing and naming sin is as old as the Old Testament practice and is carried over into the New Testament (Nm. 5:7; Jm. 5:16). When the souls came to John for his baptism (which did not nor could not save but only prepared them for the greater baptism of Jesus Christ), they confessed their sins to God in the presence of the Baptizer, just as they did when they brought sin-offerings to the priests in the Temple. As a priest, I care little for the sins and am more interested in the repentant soul emptying itself of the blackness and the muck and the great burden that shackles and imprisons the soul. The priest only is a witness, just like the Forerunner, to point the penitent soul to Jesus Christ. The priest becomes the voice of God Who speaks peace to the penitent soul and grants him or her God’s salvation. Jesus Christ Himself gives to His Church this great sacramental Mystery of Repentance and Reconciliation precisely to save souls (Jn. 20:22-23). Interestingly enough, He does so in the context of breathing on His Apostles the Holy Spirit. He gives to them His divine fire to purge and to cleanse and to heal with His divine fire. Jesus knew we would need this great saving and sanctifying Mystery. Why, then, do we flee from it as fleeing from the devil? Ah, it is because the devil has put it into our hearts and minds that we don’t need the Church for this because it’s a private affair between me and God. The devil is expert at calling into question that which God has said and has given for our salvation and communion with Him. Remember Eden and the Fall from Paradise is all based on the devil’s whisper of deceit (Gn. 3:1-24).
I’d like to share some thoughts from St. Francis de Sales. Writing to one of his penitents he reminds her to run to the Mystery often, even if she’s not aware of any particular sins. He tells her that in confession we not only receive the much needed forgiveness of God directly, but we also receive divine strength to avoid our sins in the future, the light to see them clearly, and “abundant grace to repair whatever damage [we] may have incurred.” And who of us couldn’t use that? In addition, we practice by our confessing “the virtues of humility, obedience, simplicity, and charity. In a single act of confession,” he says, “you will exercise more virtues than in any other act whatsoever” (Introduction to a Devout Life). Again, who couldn’t use those virtues in greater doses? Always have a godly sorrow that produces repentance, he tells her, no matter how small or seemingly slight the sin might be in your eyes, and always make a firm resolution to amend your ways (2 Cr. 7:10-11).
The whole point of our Lord’s Nativity according to the Flesh – His appearing – is to bestow “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,” to pour out upon us and into us His divine nature through the Holy Spirit! The Spirit of God consumes our sins in His purifying fire of divinity without consuming the sinner, and He sanctifies us, drawing us into union with God from Whom we have been estranged because of sin and death. Sin, beloved, no matter how great or small, prevents our union with God for Whom we have been created and redeemed. The remedy, then, is to repent, confess our sins, and amend our lives to conform to the holiness of God we receive in Jesus Christ our Righteousness (Jr. 23:6; 1 Cr. 1:30)! It is this Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, Who renews us each and every time we repent, confess, and receive the divine absolution.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Christ is born! Glorify Him!
2 Tm. 4:5-8