Our Gospel reading begins with the words, “In those days…” Immediately we should be asking, in what days? Prior to this gospel reading, which is the beginning of the third chapter of his gospel, Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus; the birth narrative; the story of the wise men; the flight into Egypt; Herod’s order to kill all male children two years old and under; and finally, Herod’s death. After the death of Herod, God spoke to Joseph in a dream instructing him to return to Israel. In those days, John the Baptist came preaching. Now we must note Herod the Great died when Jesus was a child, and John the Baptist—we know—was only 6 months older than Jesus. So, as we begin the third chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, some time has passed since the end of chapter 2, perhaps as much as 20-30 years, as John the Baptist and Jesus are now adults.
It is also worth noting that Matthew records John’s message as one of repentance: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I find this proclamation very interesting. Both St. Mark and St. Luke say John the Baptist was “preaching a baptism for the repentance of sins.” The proclamation to repent of your sins makes sense. There is certainly a consistent theme of repentance in our lesson today, but Matthew’s version seems to indicate why a baptism for forgiveness of sins is so important-for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. What does it mean to say “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”?
After Jesus’ return from the wilderness and the death of John the Baptist, Matthew writes, “From that time on, Jesus began to preach the Gospel saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” St. Mark writes it this way, “Now after John was arrested Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” Therefore, I believe it is safe for us to say, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God are one in the same, but more to the point these statements say something of great importance about Jesus. The kingdom is at hand, meaning right here with us, because Jesus is here, he is at hand. Jesus is the kingdom of God. Through him we have entry, and in him we partake in the kingdom of God. There is no other way: not through Caesar; nor Herod; nor any government or person, but Jesus. This is the message John the Baptist was proclaiming and it was the message the gospel writers were proclaiming to their communities. Needless to say, the same message is true for us today.
Matthew, Mark and Luke relate John the Baptist to the great prophet Isaiah, who prophesied there would be (the voice of one crying in the wilderness, not a voice, but rather the voice, the one chosen by God), his voice would cry in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John the Baptist was the fulfillment of that prophecy. Thus, the coming of John the Baptist, and his preaching, was to announce to Israel—and through them to the world—the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. The Anointed One, the Holy One of God had come into the world.
As John the Baptist prepared the way of the Lord, he did so by preparing the hearts and souls of the people to receive him. Repent! Now repentance can be accomplished from two differing perspectives. We can repent, and thus prepare to receive the Lord out of fear of going to hell, or our repentance can be motivated by love. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to these two motivating factors for repentance as imperfect and perfect contrition. The hope is we all move toward perfect contrition. True repentance, whether imperfect or perfect, moves us in the right direction toward Jesus, who is the kingdom of God. However, in perfect contrition we have a longing for Jesus, because we love him. We repent because we desire to share in his life and love; thus, we await his coming with great anticipation.
We should indeed have a healthy fear of the pains of hell, but our love for Jesus should be greater. It is our love for him, in response to his love for us that motivates us to live a moral life and in obedience to him. It is his love for us that shines deep into every nook and cranny of our soul illuminating our sin, so that we may repent of all darkness within us. Let us therefore give thanks to Almighty God for the gift of His Only Begotten Son, whose love draws us into his holiness.
We have this time now prepare for death or the Second Coming, at which time we will be judged, however long that may be, either a day or eighty years, may we choose to live them loving Jesus above all else. Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
-Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, Fr. Mark Lewis