December 5, 2010
The Second Sunday in Advent
It starts with falling into water.
On December 10, the next film in the popular “Chronicles of Narnia” series will be released. Called The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the story, as I understand it, begins with two children, Lucy and Edmund, spending a dreary holiday with their cousin Eustace, a sour and unfriendly little boy. Lucy and Edmund have been to Narnia before, but Eustace hasn’t, and he mocks them for their belief in this magical land.
Suddenly, a painting of a ship on Lucy’s wall comes to life, and the three children are drawn into Narnia. They fall into the ocean and are rescued by the sailing ship called the Dawn Treader. You might say that the film begins with a splash.
Once safely on board, Lucy and Edmund are greeted by their old friend Caspian, who’s now a king. He has embarked on a quest to find the Seven Lost Lords of Narnia, as he had earlier promised the lion Aslan. Traveling from island to island on the Dawn Treader, Caspian and the children run into dragons, dwarves, storms, slave traders and even “mer-people” (I have no clue who they are, as I read all this on line). The three children, especially the nasty cousin Eustace, are transformed by the experience.
If you’re a fan of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” you know that powerful things happen in this magical land. Author C.S. Lewis created the fantasy world to teach lessons about the Christian faith, and Aslan, his divine lion, is one of the best fictional representations of Jesus Christ. Although Aslan is gentle and loving, Lewis says again and again that he’s “not a tame lion.”
The three children fall into the waters of Narnia and go on to encounter Aslan, the Christ. It’s a spiritual adventure, similar to those found in Matthew’s gospel.
As the third chapter St. Matthew opens, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near”. The kingdom might sound like a fantasy to some, as out-of-this-world as the land of Narnia. But John says it’s very close, and he prepares people to enter it by baptizing them in the river Jordan, made spiritually clean in dirty waters, somewhat of an oxy-moron.
An outlandish figure, John is wearing a cloak of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and he munches on locusts and wild honey. He shouts that the “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals”. John is like the talking beavers in Narnia, who say Aslan the lion is good but not tame. That certainly describes Jesus, the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire. Good, but not tame.
So who responds to John’s call? The people of Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the region along the Jordan, all the Lucys and Edmunds of the world, anxious to enter the kingdom of heaven. They have a deeply unsettled feeling about their lives and want to get turned around and head in a new direction. When John calls them to repent, he means for you to change your mind or purpose in life.
Mixed into the crowd are some sour and nasty Eustaces as well; the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to see what John’s doing. “You brood of vipers!” shouts John. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance”. He says their relation to their ancestor Abraham is going to do absolutely nothing for them when the kingdom of heaven arrives in all its glory. Every one of them unwilling to bear good fruit will be “cut down and thrown into the fire”.
Wow, tough to the ears! Repent, confess and fall into the water. Or keep sinning and be cut down and thrown into the fire. That’s the stark contrast John presents to the people, the life-changing choice he forces them to make. The result is that he baptizes a large crowd in the Jordan after they confess their sins. But do they come out … transformed? Only for those who truly repent and are baptized.
Unfortunately, many of us today don’t take this turning point seriously. We may feel deeply unsettled about our lives, but we’re reluctant to repent, change our mind, redefine our purpose, and shift our course. The status quo is oddly comforting to us, and we don’t want to rock the boat. But here’s the catch: Transformation doesn’t happen in the boat. It begins with falling into water.
As we prepare for the coming of Christ during Advent, let’s stop silencing John’s prophetic thunder and draining the water out of his baptismal bowl. In this case, a cold splash is required. Dry-cleaning simply won’t work!
If we’re going to count ourselves among the crowd that plunged into the Jordan, as opposed to the Pharisees and Sadducees, then we need to pass through the water and begin to bear good fruit. The stakes are high, for John tells us that the winnowing fork is now in Christ’s hand, “and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”.
Water or fire. Good fruits or bad. The contrast is still stark, and the choice is life-changing.
Richard Helmer, an Episcopal priest here in California, is tired of all the attention given to church growth in recent years. “The subject is starting to wear quite thin on me,” he writes, “because it so often turns to matters of institutional preservation, which is not only deadly dull, but … deadly spiritually.”
He’s right. Can you imagine John the Baptist or Jesus or C.S. Lewis being concerned about institutional preservation? For these folks, life is a spiritual adventure. Just look at how Jesus treated the status quo of the Temple Priests of his time. You think he was worried about the institution as much as he was about the quality of the teaching?
Fr. Helmer is a child of the institutional church, and he wants to see it thrive and flourish. But he knows this won’t happen as a result of navel-gazing or hand-wringing or trying to rebuild the church of the 1950s. Church vitality will come from focusing on the language of the gospel, which is about “the mysterious transformation of the human heart and transformation of the human family by God’s loving grace and our active embrace of that through prayer and service to others.”
Notice the language about transformation of the human heart and the human family. It’s a change that happens by God’s loving grace and by our embrace of this grace through prayer and service. This is the “fruit worthy of repentance” that John challenges us to grow.
So how do we do it? Helmer suggests we begin by answering two questions:
First, are we striving to be faithful to the gospel and to our God? All our activities should be part of a concerted effort to grow closer to the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.
Second, we have to ask ourselves: Does our institution serve the mission of Jesus, or do we distort this mission to serve the institution? Helmer says this is the simple — but not easy — matter of correctly ordering the cart and the horse. The Pharisees put the cart before the horse, distorting God’s mission so it would serve the religious institution. Jesus later pounces on them, saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). He condemns the scribes and Pharisees for following the purity laws of the religious institution but failing to cleanse themselves of greed and self-indulgence. The mission of Jesus is to transform hearts and do God’s work in the world. This is the horse that should pull the institutional church.
In the Universal Catholic Church, we try to put the horse before the cart. Life is not always easy; trials and tribulations sometimes causes us to be caught between two evils and having to make a decision, neither of which is necessarily the one Christ wants us to make, but never deserting us all the same when we do. As Jesus also said, “It is not what goes into the body that makes one unclean; but what comes out of it.” It isn’t so much the rules we break, so much as to how and why we break them. If we keep the two greatest commandments, the rest will follow.
Life is a spiritual adventure, and it begins when we fall into water and then climb out transformed. Moving forward in faith, let’s serve the mission of Jesus and bear good fruit for the kingdom of heaven.
Nothing less will please John the Baptist, Jesus and the other lions of our faith. We are not perfect, but if we at least try, the one who is will help us get as close as humanly possible!
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.