Fr. Bryan Howard
3rd Sunday of Advent – Year A – 15 December 2019
St. John the Baptist, Jesus’ own cousin, is the one who first noticed the Jesus is the Messiah. He had the mission to prepare the people for the Messiah and to point Him out when He came, and he accomplished his mission. However, by this point St. John the Baptist has been imprisoned by King Herod for questioning the legality and morality of his marriage. So, St. John is at a low point in his life and he’s beginning to doubt himself. Is Jesus really the Messiah? Did I get it right? Is the Kingdom of God coming? He sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus if He’s really the Messiah, the Christ? Jesus tells them to look at what He’s doing: giving sight to the blind, healing the crippled, cleansing lepers, making the deaf hear, raising the dead, and proclaiming the good news to the poor. He’s doing all of the things that the Messiah was prophesied to do, and He’s letting His actions speak for Him.
Actions always speak louder than words. It’s one thing to say that you love someone, and it’s another to put their needs ahead of your own, or valuing bravery verses risking your life for a worthy cause, or saying that generosity is important verses making a real sacrifice to help the needy. The prophets of the Old Testament understand that merely proclaiming the Word of God wasn’t enough, they lived out their prophesies. That’s what St. John the Baptist was doing. He lived in the desert, wore camel hair clothes, and lived on locusts and honey. This was a dramatic way of asking people if God was more important to them than comfort, honor, wealth, and luxury. Are we ever tempted to put aside our honesty to get ahead at work, or will we sacrifice worldly success to build up treasure in heaven? Are we willing to put aside our faith because we think people will think we’re strange or crazy? Are we willing to put aside our morality so we can hang out with certain people, the cool crowd? Now, let me be clear, money, honor, comfort, and success are all good things. Accomplishing things in life is good. Providing a good life for your family is good. But they’re only good in the context of a good, moral life. It’s the single minded pursuit of them and willingness to sacrifice our principles for them that is immoral. By giving them up entirely, St. John the Baptist was saying, in a dramatic way, that God must be first in our lives and that we should be willing to give everything else for Him.
We don’t usually think of it like that, but marriage is another way of living out a prophetic life. Catholics consider marriage to be a sacrament. Sacraments are visible signs of invisible graces. For example, the water of baptism symbolizes the effect that baptism has on the soul of giving spiritual life and spiritual cleansing. So in marriage the love of husband and wife for one another and for their children represent the love that God has for us. It’s hard for us to imagine the kind of love that God has for us because we don’t actually have any experience with it. The Bible compares it to the love of a spouse or a parent because that is the closest thing we have to it in this life, and yet, we’re only human, so we make mistakes and fail to show our love for one another. We show love or feel love, but God is love.
St. Augustine wrote about the three goods of marriage, and these are what the bride and groom promise to one another in the marriage vows: fidelity, indissolubility, and fruitfulness. The bride and groom promise to be faithful in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, for better or worse, and for richer or poorer. It’s easy to be faithful in good times and health, and for better and richer. What they’re really promising is fidelity in bad times, in sickness, for worse, and for poorer. God’s faithfulness is one of the primary ways that God is described in the Old Testament. He is faithful to Israel even when they sin against Him by worshiping false gods, breaking His laws, and taking advantage of the most helpless in society. When they forsake Him He allows them to go, even when it results in destruction, but He always forgives them and brings them back. He keeps sending them prophets to call them to repentance, and He eventually sends even His own Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die for them and for us.
The bride and groom promise to be faithful “until death do us part,” or “all the days of my life.” That’s a poetic way of saying that they are promising to love each other without limit. They give themselves to one another in every aspect of life and for their entire life. That’s what the Eucharist is for us. In Jesus Christ, God has given Himself to us. He even suffered and died for us, and He continues to give Himself to us in the Eucharist, body and blood, soul and divinity. Husband and wife promise that their love for one another doesn’t depend on they’re emotions, which can change, but that they will continue to place one another’s needs ahead of their own. It’s not just hard, it’s humanly impossible, so we go before God and ask for His help.
Finally, marriage is fruitful. Love always wants to spread, to grow, and to give life. After all, even though God has everything that He needs in the Trinity, He created the universe and gave us life in order to share His life and His love with us. The most obvious way this is shown in marriage is having children, who are a living expression of their love for one another, but it’s also shown in those who adopt children or reach out in love to those around them in so many different ways. The very witness of their love and care for one another is one of the greatest gifts they can give.
I’ve been focusing on marriage because it’s so important and families are under so much stress, but we are all, as Christians, called to be witnesses of love to one another, to live in a prophetic way, and to bring God into people’s lives. We’re each called to do that in our own way, but in this Mass let’s ask God to give us grace and strength through the Eucharist, the great sign of His love for us, so we can go out and be better witnesses to that love in how we treat one another.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.