Second Sunday of Advent (Year A) “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
St. John Damascene, priest, doctor of the Church; St. Barbara, virgin and martyr
Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
The words of the title of the commentary above accompany us to the “heart” of the Advent season, which began a week ago. They are proclaimed in today’s Gospel, according to Matthew, by John the Baptist, who thus exhorted everyone to conversion to prepare “the way of the Lord”. We, too, are called to listen attentively to the living Word of God who still speaks today through the voice of John.
1. “A voice of one crying out in the desert”
John is presented as the prophet who takes on in himself, in his words and by his actions, the characteristics of the prophets of Israel’s tradition. His voice in the wilderness recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah who proclaimed in God’s name the beginning of a new exodus, a new exit from the exile of Babylon, as indicated by the evangelist himself. In addition, such detailed mention of John the Baptist’s clothing echoes the prophet Elijah’s way of dressing (cf. 2Kgs 1:8), and the food on which he fed himself daily recall an austere and penitential manner of life, distinctive of the prophets.
Portrayed as a prophet, John, however, has something special: the essence of his preaching is described with the exhortation to conversion for the kingdom of heaven, that is, the kingdom of God (according to the Jewish way of expressing himself, which out of reverence for the divine name even avoids the use of the word God). The identical exhortation will be on Jesus’ lips at the beginning of his public activities, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt 4:17). In this way, we glimpse, on the one hand, Jesus’ confirmation of the validity of John the Baptist’s message, and on the other, the figure of John the Baptist as a preacher of the Gospel—that is, of the good news of God, proclaimed by Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, in the fullness of time—emerges clearly. In other words, John the Baptist is the voice of God, in which we hear the same message that Jesus, the Word (Verbum) of God incarnate, will proclaim (just as St. Augustine noted “John is the voice. Of the Lord, on the other hand, it is said, ‘In the beginning was the Word’ [Jn 1:1]. John is the voice that passes; Christ is the eternal Word who was in the beginning). John therefore is a special prophet, the messianic prophet who has the great honor of heralding the coming of the messianic kingdom, inaugurated by Christ.
In this regard, I emphasize again that every prophet of God is His special one sent to the people to always speak in his name concerning his things, God asks him to speak! He is the missionary of God. So it was with John the Baptist. He is solemnly presented as the prophet chosen in the fulfillment of history. Later, he will be praised by Jesus himself: “among those born of women, no one is greater than John”, one who was “more than a prophet,” and a “messenger” of God (cf. Lk 7:27-28; Mt 11:9-11). The particular mention of the “desert” as a place of vocation and the beginning of the Baptist’s activity is not just to signal the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophetic announcement (cf. Lk 3:4; Is 40:3) or to recall the experience of exodus. It makes us imagine a general spiritual picture of the time and to perceive a connection between the Baptist’s entry into the scene and the eschatological renewal of the people. God’s prophet-missionary almost always acts in the desert, even when he does so in an overcrowded city such as Shanghai, New Delhi, Lagos, or Sao Paulo! He is not particularly intimidated or deterred by this fact, because he knows that he is there not of his own will but for a mission entrusted to him by the Word of God!
2. “You brood of vipers! (…) Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.”
John’s voice becomes extremely harsh toward the Pharisees and Sadducees, members of the two most important religious groups of the time, who came to his baptism anyway: “You brood of vipers!”. There must be some reason for such an epithet! Perhaps he saw the hypocrisy behind their apparent act of receiving his baptism. The outward, visible sign will necessarily have to correspond to the intention and commitment of the spirit to a factual change of life in order to enter and remain in the kingdom of heaven. This is why John the Baptist insists, “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance”. What would this fruit be? What act would be “worthy of conversion”? From this context we can glimpse that the desirable fruit will be an opening to the coming Messianic kingdom.
On a spiritual level, the call of John the Baptist remains valid for every “baptized person” today, in the present time of waiting for the coming of the Lord. The Lord Jesus himself warned us in no uncertain terms against all hypocrisy and spiritual laziness: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Mt 7:19), and again, "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21). All the baptized then as now are called to the serious commitment to conversion that leads to mature faith “working through love”, as St. Paul the apostle points out in Gal 5:6 precisely along the same lines as St. James the apostle (Jas 2:14-26). Such genuine and mature faith naturally leads to the joyful sharing of life in the kingdom of heaven with others, that is, to “missionary” commitment in the “messianic preaching” of the kingdom of God to all and at all times, as John the Baptist did.
3. In view of “the one who is coming”, the “sprout” of Jesse, who will “baptize in Holy Spirit and fire”
Despite the harshness of the language characteristic of the style of the prophets who wanted to shake the spiritually drowsy conscience of many, the messianic preaching of John the Baptist opens the horizon to a future of hope, pointing to the figure of “the one who is coming”, the messiah of God who “will baptize with the holy Spirit and fire”. Beyond the fire that is an image of divine judgment and purification, the reference of baptism in the Holy Spirit, that is, to immersion in the divine Spirit with the coming of Christ, underscores the fulfillment of the dream of the prophets in Israel for the end times, when God will pour out his spirit on every creature, according to the announcement of the prophet Joel (cf. Jl 3:1-5), later accentuated by St. Peter the apostle in his first missionary preaching on the day of Pentecost (cf. Acts 2:17-18). What is more, as the prophet Isaiah indicated in the first reading, this Spirit of God will first rest on the “shoot” of Jesse, the image of the coming messiah, and then expand on all. Thus, as a result, “the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea”. In this way, humanity will return to peace and harmony with God, with creation, and with one another, as described with the scene of paradise found that we have heard (Is 11:6-9).
Therefore, all baptized Christians are reminded of, and called again today to the life in the Spirit they have received as a gift from Christ, in order to live deeply the Advent season, in which we are all called to conversion in view of the coming of the Lord. To this point, we want to quote an important passage by Pope Francis in his recent message for World Mission Sunday 2022: “All Christ’s missionary disciples are called to recognize the essential importance of the Spirit’s work, to dwell in his presence daily and to receive his unfailing strength and guidance. Indeed, it is precisely when we feel tired, unmotivated or confused that we should remember to have recourse to the Holy Spirit in prayer. Let me emphasize once again that prayer plays a fundamental role in the missionary life, for it allows us to be refreshed and strengthened by the Spirit as the inexhaustible divine source of renewed energy and joy in sharing Christ’s life with others.”
We therefore conclude our reflection with the prayer (provided as an alternative Collect [Opening Prayer] for this Sunday in the Italian Missal):
O Father, who made to sprout on earth the Savior
and upon him you have placed your Spirit,
stir up in us the same sentiments of Christ,
that we may bear fruits of justice and peace.
Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.