"Your word, O Lord, is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path" (Ps.119:105)

Third Sunday of Advent

"BE STRONG, FEAR NOT! HERE IS YOUR GOD" (Is.35:4)

These are the exact words which God spoke to Abraham while reassuring him of the promise to make him great, "Be strong, fear not..." (Gen.15:1). Today, the prophet Isaiah speaks these words to a people expecting deliverance from bondage. The reading is taken from one of Isaiah's many passages of hope probably after Israel had returned from the Babylonian captivity. The prophet Isaiah attributes the unsuccessful attack of Assyria in 701BC to the power of God. He speaks of messianism, the God who comes to save his people from bondage. Having experienced terrible things in their exile, the Israelites are trembling and are afraid. But the prophet Isaiah declares restoration and hope. He reminds them of the need to believe only in God and not rely on human authority for liberation. God is the reason to be strong, not afraid. He is the God who brings divine recompense and salvation. The prophet declares numerous reasons to trust in God's saving help- "the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; the lame will leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing. Those whom the Lord has ransomed will return and enter Zion singing, crowned with everlasting joy, they will meet with joy and gladness, sorrow and mourning will flee".

The message of today's readings is that God's presence brings complete restoration to those who believe. The prophet says, "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not". While Isaiah points to the coming of a messiah who will free the people from bondage, the encounter between Jesus and John the Baptist in the gospel provides the answer to Isaiah's declaration of messianism.

Last Sunday, John the Baptist lashed out at the Pharisees while calling them to repentance. He threatened and cursed them, described them as "brood of vipers" who deserve God's wrath. Today, John is in prison and Jesus begins his ministry. John is a bit uncomfortable and perhaps scared that Jesus' approach downplays his persuasive and provocative tone. John's emphasis is on divine anger and Judgment whereas Jesus embodies healing and divine mercy. John wants to confirm his belief or rather his doubts. He sends his disciples to go find out if Jesus is truly the messiah he is working for. Scripture says, "When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with the question, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" (Matt.11:2). That is a serious question. It is like saying to your boss, "Now, let's look at the schedule here. Let's put things straight, sir".

John's feelings portray frustration for some reasons: 1. Jesus is supposed to speak on behalf of John while he is in prison. 2. The methodology of Jesus seems to contradict his own, and so John needs to be sure that he is really preaching the same message as Jesus. 3. John has palpable fears.

Characteristic of Jesus, he addresses John's questions with proofs. Since John preaches about the Kingdom, it is good to let him see proofs of the presence of God's kingdom among his people: "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them". This is God's kingdom made available to believers.

Let's remember that Jesus had earlier declared this mission in the synagogue of Nazareth. Thus Scripture says, "they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah from where he read, "The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord" (Lk.4:18). After that declaration, he said to his listeners, "This text is being fulfilled today while you are listening" (Lk.4:21). His statement could imply thus, "this text is being fulfilled in me as I speak to you this day". Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy, the saving Power of God. He strengthens all trembling hands, calms all weary hearts. Therefore, Jesus confirms John's beliefs and urges him not to take offense at him.

On another note, Christ also uses the opportunity to endorse John the Baptist as a prophet sent to declare God's plan of salvation. John the Baptist is a great prophet in the pattern of Elijah. He is not a self acclaimed prophet, "a reed swayed by the wind". He is not a flamboyant figure who lazies about in the palace. He is the one prophesied by Malachi, God's messenger sent like the prophet Elijah to declare God's reign (cf. Mal.3:23-24). Hence Jesus states, "He is the one of whom scripture says: Look, I am sending my messenger in front of you to prepare your way before you. In truth I tell you, of all children born to women, there has never been anyone greater than John the Baptist" (Matt.11:10-11). So, both messages of John and Jesus corroborate one another and do not contradict.

Meanwhile, Jesus is the reason to be strong. He is the source of courage and consolation. He is a consoling presence for believers. He is the reason why the  prophet tells us, "Be strong, fear not!" Sometimes we tremble. Sometimes we panic for various reasons in life. Certain forces confront our individual existence and family lives. We experience disappointments and failures in our relationships, in marriage. We experience delays. We experience anxieties caused by sicknesses. We experience denials. We encounter losses. We get scared. The words of the prophet ring out strongly, "Be strong!  Fear not!". If you believe in Christ, he gives you the strength, he makes you strong in the midst of temptations. Sometimes, too, those temptations do not go away, but Christ strengthens you with the grace to tackle them. While addressing the Galatian Church, Saint Paul talked about a certain illness in him which would not go away. It was this illness, he said, that first gave him the opportunity to preach the gospel (cf. Gal.4:13-14). Yet, Paul remained strong and committed to the gospel message, converted his weakness to opportunity.

In this advent season, God is telling us to be strong. He is inviting all of us to trust in his love and mercy. He is our God, yes, he does not abandon us in times of trouble. He is a saving God. Don Moen sings, "Give thanks with a grateful heart. Give thanks to the holy one. Give thanks because he's given Jesus Christ, His Son (2ice). And now, let the weak say I am strong. Let the poor say I am rich. Because of what the Lord has done for us (2ice). Give thanks!!!"

In Christ, the poor are rich, the weak are strong. In Christ all trembling hands are steadied. In Christ sorrows turn to joy, hunger gives way to fullness and satisfaction. In Christ we are made whole again. Let's go about to declare this message of restoration to those around us. Let us convey hope by our presence which is the love of Christ that we embody. Take this message home with you today to those you meet; say to them, "Be strong! Fear not! Here is your God". He is the God of possibilities.

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

"PRODUCE GOOD FRUITS AS EVIDENCE OF YOUR REPENTANCE"

Today's readings feature two prominent prophecies about God's kingdom. One is the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah while the other is the New Testament prophecy of John the Baptist. Both prophecies point to the coming of a great kingdom though in different ways. While Isaiah talks of a world of perfect happiness, John the Baptist uses harsh tone which warns everyone of the imminence of dangers for those who take his words for granted. God's kingdom is great and loving but it demands repentance from those who really have to enjoy it.

Isaiah's prophecy dates back to the second half of the eighth century BC, a time when Judah turned to various alien nations for protection from invasion, Assyria being one of those nations that made Judah to panic. The people take things for granted. Social justice suffers. The prophet confronts the people against recklessness in the first instance. However, he prophecies hope for the coming of a righteous king, the son of David. He will lead the people back to their origin, namely, God. "On that day", he says, "a shoot shall spring from the stump of Jesse". This king will be specially chosen for the mission of liberating the people. "The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him; the spirit of wisdom and insight, the spirit of counsel and power, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord" (Is.11:1-3). Isaiah continues to create an image of the beatific vision where all things will be complete and perfect. The imagery is one of which this king shall transform the world into a perfect and mystifying presence. Justice, fairness, uprightness, and constancy shall be prominent features. Everything will be transformed into a paradise of peace and harmony. Imagine such powerful image,  "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Is.11:6-9).

All of us will surely wonder on the reality of this prophecy in our time. How can the young child play with the cobra? How can the leopard and the goat graze together when human beings themselves have not accommodated their kind? How can the lion eat with the lamb when the cat and the dog which stay in your house are already struggling for supremacy? Think about the chaos in today's world; the people of Aleppo in Syria, for example are dying in numbers from their own brothers and sisters who have become ISIS members. The North and South Koreans are ill at ease with each other. In Nigeria, people are dying because of man's inhumanity to man. Here in the United States, pockets of hatred and discriminations exist, differences for mere reasons of color. So, how can this perfect world image created by the prophet Isaiah over thousands of years ago be realized? Or did it expire after his era?

Saint Paul uses two words to describe how we can create such harmony in the world: "endurance and encouragement". He enjoins us to welcome one another in the same way as Christ welcomed us for the glory of God. It was Christ who broke the barriers of separation and segregation, thus enabling both Jews and Gentiles to share in God's inheritance. That kingdom prophesied by Isaiah is the kingdom of Christ the Emmanuel. He is the shoot from the stock of David, the Mighty Counselor, Prince of Peace.

In John the Baptist we see this pointer to the kingdom of God. John proclaims repentance for the people. Everyone in Judea and Jerusalem looks forward to the reign of the kingdom of God. They see John as a sign of its appearance. But John confronts them with the reality of the message, "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand". To experience the kingdom implies repentance. It demands turning away from evil and from the things things that threaten the peace which the Messiah brings. The challenge is, "Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father" (Matt.3:8-9).

This is the challenge of the kingdom of heaven, the demand from Christians in order to enjoy a world governed by peace. The world religions (Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, etc) have to emphasize this message at all times- "Produce good fruits". Good fruits do not necessarily come from being a member of one church or another. They come from knowing God who has created human beings in his divine image. Good fruits come from knowing that God is the origin of all goodness, that he wants us to be good. Good fruits are the product of faith in God. They arise because God has called us to do good. Any Christian or so called follower of any religion who cannot do good works is not worthy of the name. That's what Saint James means when he says, "Faith without good deeds is dead" (James 2:17).

The Jews flock to John the Baptist to witness miracles. Their interest is in material freedom, in a messiah who would bring food sufficiency, political security and financial satisfaction, but they are not ready to commit to the spiritual demands of such kingdom. Social injustice, hatred, oppression, manipulation, reign among the people. Hence John warns them to either desist from those negative lifestyles or perish, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you from the coming wrath?"

It is important to hear these words today as we prepare for the coming of Christ. Advent is a time of telling ourselves of the need to produce good works. It is a time to remind ourselves of the need to create a perfect world order where all will be happy, respected and acknowledged. The lion and the lamb will graze together only if we produce good works. The Muslim and the Christian will cohabit if all focus on good works. The Jew and the Hindu will live at peace if all emphasize good works. Blacks and Whites would not segregate if all work towards good fruits. We must produce good fruits for Christmas celebration to be meaningful.

Within our own community, we all need to produce good fruits. Visiting the sick, homeless, prisoners. Giving alms to the poor, needy, being sincere, working for justice, encouraging the depressed and the disappointed, supporting the weak; these are all good fruits of our faith. Protecting the unborn children is good fruit. Forgiving my detractor and initiating peaceful conversations in the family are good fruits of faith. Those are the great manifestations of our faith, and proof of the presence of God's kingdom. Let us take as our assignment for this Christmas to do at least three key works that are different from our regular Christmas routine in the past to produce good fruits in the lives of others.

May the presence of God's kingdom be felt around us. Amen.

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

ANOTHER CALL TO VIGILANCE.

 The season of advent is one period that reminds Christians of the need to stay alert in preparation for the coming Messiah. Here, we note that the coming takes two forms: the birth of the infant Jesus which is celebrated at Christmas and the second coming of the Son of Man. Today's readings seem to point more to the second coming as Christ says, "For you do not know on which day the Lord will come". The Greek word "Parousia" is often used to translate this coming. In the Roman society, parousia referred to a ruler's visitation to a city or the arrival of a deity bringing salvation to the people. Christians thus adapted the word, combining both meanings to signify Christ's coming to complete God's final rule which began in his ministry. It is about this great coming that the readings of today challenge us to a life of vigilance.

The first reading recalls Isaiah's prophecy concerning Judah. The prophet invites Judah repeatedly to trust in God rather than rely on human power. He envisions God enthroned in the temple while all nations stream to worship him. In the words of Isaiah, "In days to come, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it" (Is.2:2; Mic.4:1-4). The passage reminds us of the invincible power of God. It refers to the restoration of Israel to the glory of their God. The Good Shepherd will reign in their lives after their punishment and the threats from Assyria. The image of Israel's splendid new future is evoked here. It is a future anchored strictly on the greatness of their God. All nations will acknowledge God. All nations will worship him, "Come, let us climb the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths" (Is.2:3).

To walk in the paths of the Lord, to climb his holy mountain demands vigilance. Saint Paul warns us against procrastination. He invites us to be awake since our salvation is near with the coming of Christ. In order to walk in the way of the Lord, we must cast off the cloak or works of darkness and embrace the light of the Lord. We must conduct ourselves without shame. We must shun the ways of the flesh: drunkenness, promiscuity, lust, rivalry and jealousy. We must put on Christ, be ready for his coming. In the Psalms we read: "Who shall go up to the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place? The clean of hands and pure of heart, whose heart is not set on vanities, who does not swear an oath in order to deceive" (Ps.24:3-4).

In the gospel, Jesus takes his disciples back to the days of Noah. What happened then? People were consumed by the flood. Why? Because they refused to pay attention to the call to repentance. They failed to walk in the ways of God. They didn't take his words seriously, hence they were taken unawares. Christ says, "So will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left". Then he warns, "Therefore, stay awake!" The fact that two people will be together, one taken while the other is left shows the impartiality of God.

Think of it this way. You and your friend are traveling to another country together. While putting together your luggage, you include an item you know wouldn't pass through security. As you enter security check, you already feel nervous because you wonder if the liquid in your hand luggage will mistakenly cross over. But it doesn't. You are pulled aside and your friend is allowed to continue unhindered. The security take you to a different direction for a more thorough search while your friend has no other option than to move on else he be queried. It is not because it's you, but because you have some contraband. That's how the separation happens. Sin is a contraband in the heavenly journey. It doesn't cross divine security checks. It's either dropped or the sinner won't cross the screening. It is not as a result of discrimination. It is because of the fact that one is prepared while the other is not. It does not matter whether you are husband and wife, brother and sister. Noah lived among his people. All of them were given the same warning/opportunity but Noah took it more seriously than others. That's what saved him from the flood. God is only interested in having us live good lives in order to be saved.

For us Christians, advent reminds us of the need to prepare for Christ's coming. However, the nature of preparation is important here. Oftentimes, the tendency is to prepare materially only. We have lots of items on sale at this time. We have lots of games and sports lined up for Christmas celebration. We have lots of cinemas and shows to make the event colorful. We have lots of social activities that we intend to be part of. Those are good in themselves. But they satisfy the material aspect of the season. How about the spiritual? Can't we have a schedule that invites our families to prayer, a schedule that reminds them of the need to stay away from crazy things and relationships at Christmas? Staying awake means being vigilant and spiritually alert. It means avoiding sinful acts. It means recognizing the need to be close to Christ.

Advent calls us to a life of reflection. A little like in lent, we use purple vestment that helps us contemplate the meaning of His suffering. The Gloria is omitted at the Sunday masses. Opportunities are created for confessions to enable us reconcile with the church and with the God made Flesh. Families are reminded to pray together in order to welcome the new born king as Mary and Joseph welcomed him at Nazareth. That's the call to vigilance. Let us not be distracted by the ways of the world. The mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the highest of the mountains. It is the Sacred Mountain of the Blessed Eucharist where we encounter Christ, welcome him into our hearts and our homes. In the end, all will recognize the greatness of the Lord. All will want to be part of the house of the Lord. All nations will stream to the love manifested to us in the Blessed Eucharist. But we have to be awake. We must make good use of advent in order to welcome Christ the savior of the world.  

The business organizations try to make Christmas memorable and affordable. They put their goods on sale so that customers can afford them. That's why the competition is high. You have choices to buy from Macy's, Sears, JC Penny, K&G, or online at Amazon, EBay, etc. Clothes are on sale. Electronic gadgets, beverages, technology, etc. Every business wants to retain its customers, and customers want to save and be happy at Christmas. In the same way, I want you to recognize that things are on sale with regard to your faith. The Church makes confessions and the sacraments also affordable and available through your priests. The church wants you to be happy and enjoy a spirit-filled Christmas. We make ourselves available to you at no cost. We're completely free of charge because Christ offered himself to us without charge. Why not have a great time with the Lord? All he wants of you is to stay awake.