Gospel commentary: Worth the wait

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For believers, there are times when it is good to “hear voices” and times when it is good to discover roadblocks or obstacles in our way. At this time of year and, really, at all times of the year, there are such people standing quietly, even nervously in line waiting to confess their sins to a priest. The authenticity of their faith in what they are about to do is a powerful testimony to the action of God in peoples’ lives. They are in line willingly and freely and they want to go through the pride-challenging process of making a good confession, of being reconciled with God.


There were similar lines of willing and waiting believers in the days of St. John the Baptist. How blessed they were to have the humility to hear his wild, from-the-wilderness, compelling and convincing message. Other people, no doubt, quickly dismissed John as a fanatic or worse. But the people who took his message to heart were glad to do what he called them to do. They waited in long lines beside the river to receive the baptism of repentance, which he was offering to them. In those moments, waiting for their turn to be washed by the holy man, they did what we do — they called to mind their sins, admitting their need to acknowledge all that they had done to offend God and disobey His commandments.


Did John require them to say their sins out loud so that everyone could hear? Would we be willing to do that? In our day, we shudder at the idea of being known for our sins. Yet, there is a need for us to recognize the real effect our sins have on others around us and on the community at large.


Sins always bring about a distance between us and God. He does not move away from us, but we say, by our actions, that we prefer to keep a distance from Him. This distance keeps growing as we keep sinning. It is easy to understand why we might fail to hear or recognize the voice of God (oftentimes spoken through His church and her priests and deacons, if not through the fraternal correction of our brothers and sisters in faith) calling out to us in our consciences.


The distance between sinners and God highlights the beauty and goodness of each sinner willing to repent. St. John the Baptist was a master at calling sinners to sincere repentance. One by one the people approach him, the voice in the desert. They add to his prophetic words their own sincere expression of repentance. Such an exercise of devotion and truth brings them closer to the firm foundation of God’s presence in their lives. As they submit to this public ritual they arrive at a new and better place in their friendship with God. He no longer feels so distant from them. He has called them through this mysterious preacher and they have responded freely. What is next for them? The voice tells them: I have baptized you with water; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.


Sincere and honest admission of and repentance for one’s sins is a great indicator that one is in a good place spiritually. The believers who responded to St. John the Baptist’s preaching most certainly experienced a new interior freedom. With this freedom they were able to ponder the promise he gave of one already among them who would offer them another baptism, one of greater power and significance. We can imagine their excitement when they began to hear about what Jesus of Nazareth was saying and doing. They must have been among the first and the best in their response to Jesus.


Freedom from our sins is a tremendous gift from God. When a person hears God’s voice from within calling him or her to admit sinful choices, that person is experiencing closeness to God. Of highest importance is the next step of accepting that these same sins form a real obstacle to His love.


Of all the lines we can wait in this Advent, the (hopefully) long and devotedly nervous line of repentant sinners is one of the best. While we wait, we can reflect on the best bargain ever — freedom from sin by means of the sacraments of baptism and (continuing with) penance. It is always obvious that the weight of His Cross, willingly embraced for us, makes our relatively short wait altogether worth it.


Fr. Zuberbueler is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Falls Church.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017