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Sunday, December 5th, 2021

‘Congregate sanctos eius’: a Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent

Out of Sion the loveliness of his beauty: God shall come manifestly. Gather together before him, you saints, who placed his covenant before sacrifices (Psalm 49).

Each year during Advent I am always struck by St John the Baptist—not so much on account of his preaching, but on account of his imprisonment and martyrdom. A superficial reading of today’s Gospel would seem to portray Our Lord as rather indifferent to St John’s plight. Our Lord weeps at the natural death of Lazarus, but seems unconcerned when the innocent man—his cousin—dies because of the lust and cowardice of Herod; because of the vindictiveness of Herodias. What are we to make of this?

We do well to remember the following. Everything Our Lord does and says—or does not do or does not say—is determined by his purpose and mission: “My food is to do the will of him that sent me, that I may perfect his work.”[1] The Sacred Heart of our Lord is utterly attuned to the will of the Father; and that will is to save what is lost.

Therefore, the relationship between Christ and St John the Baptist is also taken up in this salvific mission. Despite the appearance of distance, St John is an associate of Christ and his work.    

Abbot Guéranger teaches us why and how this is so:

But now, contemplate this same Lord upon our earth, during the days which have dawned upon us. The womb of the Virgin contains Him, whom heaven cannot contain. To angels his beauty is visible, but it dazzles them not; to men, it is not even visible. . . . for the earth is witness of His abasement, and an abasement so abject and low, that the inhabitants of the earth do not even know it.[2]

St John is the forerunner—not only by his preaching and teaching, but by his imprisonment and death. Remember what St Paul wrote about Christ to the Philippians: “But [he] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man.”[3]

But so too did St John take on the form of a slave. He is contained in prison; Our Lord imprisoned himself, as it were, in the body of the Immaculate One. There are obvious and profound differences between these two prisons; but each demonstrates the lowliness and hiddenness of the activity of divine grace.

Abbot Guéranger explains further. He remarks that Our Lord’s abasement was so low that, when he was born upon the earth, only three people know of it: Our Lady, Elizabeth, and St Joseph. He writes,

So that only three on earth know that God has come down upon it! Thus humbly did He re-enter the world, after the sin of pride had driven Him out of it.[4]

And in that sentence we have another key to the mystery of Advent, a key and mystery which is confirmed by St John the Baptist. During Advent, we witness the abasement of St John the Baptist, because it points to the abasement of Jesus Christ. St John falls victim to the pride of men, and in so doing, demonstrates the humility of the Lamb which he foretells. If we see the pathos of the mission of St John, it points out the deeper pathos of the mission of Christ.

The text of our gradual today encompasses the mystery about which we have been speaking. Certainly at his final coming, Christ will shine forth manifestly “in the aspect of his beauty.” But already St John begins to make Christ and his mission appear: “Gather his saints to him,” says Ps 49, “who have set his covenant before sacrifices”—the very thing which St John did and died for.

So no, John the Forerunner is not a thing thrown away—no disciple of Christ ever is—but he is a mirror of Christ’s obedience and abasement. This is true, it must be said, especially in view of the life of the priest. We forget, for instance, that St John the Baptist was the son of Zecharias, a priest. And so we must view St John through a priestly lens, even as he fulfills the role of a prophet. But his dark prison and apparent defeat are only dramatic expressions of what is true of every martyr and every priest: naturally speaking, his life is a controlled failure. No man may handle the sacred things in a commensurate way. But because the priest is, like St John the Baptist, a mirror and associate of Christ, apparent failure presents no obstacle to what Christ can do.   

But in truth, therein lies the heart of the Christian life: to meet Christ in his annihilated obedience, so as to be raised up with him in glory.

 


[1] John 4, 34.

[2] The Liturgical Year, vol 1, p 151.

[3] Philippians 2, 7.

[4] The Liturgical Year, vol 1, p 152.

{Art Credit: Murillo, St John the Baptist Pointing to Christ (c 1655), Art Institute of Chicago}

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