Bishop Robert Barron
Friends, in today’s Gospel Jesus says to the crowds: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.”
The name of Flannery O’Connor’s second novel was taken from the Douay-Rheims translation of this last line: “the violent bear it away.” What do we make of this strange and famously ambiguous wording?
Many have taken it to mean that the kingdom of God is attacked by violent people, such as those who killed John the Baptist, and that they threaten to take it away. But others have interpreted it in the opposite direction, as a word of praise to the spiritually violent who manage to get into the kingdom. O’Connor herself sides with this latter group. In one of her letters, she says, “St. Thomas’s gloss on this verse is that the violent Christ is here talking about represent those ascetics who strain against mere nature. St. Augustine concurs.”
The “mere nature” that classical Christianity describes is a fallen nature, one that tends away from God and his demands. The “violent,” on this reading, are those spiritually heroic types who resist the promptings and tendencies of this nature and seek to discipline it in order to enter into the kingdom of God.
Friends, today we celebrate the great feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. What followed the apparition of Mary at Tepeyac is one of the most astounding chapters in the history of Christian evangelism.
Though Franciscan missionaries had been laboring in Mexico for twenty years, they had made little progress. But within ten years of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe practically the entire Mexican people, nine million strong, had converted to Christianity. La Morena had proved a more effective evangelist than Peter, Paul, St. Patrick, and St. Francis Xavier combined! And with that great national conversion, the Aztec practice of human sacrifice came to an end. She had done battle with fallen spirits and had won a culture-changing victory for the God of love.
The challenge for us who honor her today is to join the same fight. We must announce to our culture today the truth of the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ, the God of nonviolence and forgiving love. And we ought, like La Morena, to be bearers of Jesus to a world that needs him more than ever.
Friends, today’s Gospel passage recounts the story of the shepherd finding his lost sheep. Let’s look at that lost sheep. A sheep is something more than a lost coin—which is to say, it has mobility, sense, appetites, and so on. Many years ago, when I was on retreat at the Abbey of Tamie in the Alps, I heard the desperate bleating of a sheep who had fallen into a pit. All night he cried, knowing that he was in trouble and hoping that someone would come to save him.
There are souls who are like the lost sheep. Spiritually compromised, fundamentally unable to help themselves, they are at least aware that they are in a mess. They are like people who commence the AA process by admitting that they have hit bottom and are out of control. They bleat, they cry for help.
And God finds them—and when he finds them, he carries them back, for they are unable to move on their own.
Friends, our Gospel for today tells that wonderful story of the healing of the paralytic. People gather by the dozens to hear Jesus, crowding around the doorway of the house. They bring him a paralyzed man, and because there is no way to get him through the door, they climb up on the roof and open a space to lower him down.Can I suggest a connection between this wonderful narrative and our present evangelical situation? There are an awful lot of Catholics who are paralyzed, unable to move, frozen in regard to Christ and the Church. This might be from doubt, from fear, from anger, from old resentment, from ignorance, or from self-reproach. Some of these reasons might be good; some might be bad.
Your job, as a believer, is to bring others to Christ. How? A word of encouragement, a challenge, an explanation, a word of forgiveness, a note, a phone call. We notice the wonderful urgency of these people as they bring the sick man to Jesus. Do we feel the same urgency within his Mystical Body today?
Advent is a great liturgical season of waiting—but not a passive waiting. We yearn, we search, and we reach out for the God who will come to us in human flesh. In short, we prepare the way of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This preparation has a penitential dimension, because it is the season in which we prepare for the coming of a savior, and we don’t need a savior unless we’re deeply convinced there is something to be saved from. When we have become deeply aware of our sin, we know that we can cling to nothing in ourselves, that everything we offer is, to some degree, tainted and impure. We can’t show our cultural, professional, and personal accomplishments to God as though they are enough to save us. But the moment we realize that fact, we move into the Advent spirit, desperately craving a savior.
In the book of Isaiah, we read: “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you are the potter: we are all the work of your hands.” Today, let us prepare ourselves for the potter to come.