When I was growing up, one of the traditional Advent rituals that my family took part in was the sacrament of Reconciliation or confession. I can still recall the very long lines at all three of the confessionals. Of course, I can also recall the dis-ease with which we sometimes went to confession, but alas, each time—no matter what—we left feeling much better and at ease with ourselves and with the Lord.
Nowadays, there is a very significant drop in the numbers of penitents coming to confession in Advent, let alone during the rest of the year. From my vantage-point, it’s sad, really: I wish people could see that such a sacramental celebration really calls us more closely into union with God and the Church, into a life of holiness and joy, into responsibility and rejoicing and peace. But, on the other hand, as I see it, we’re the product of our culture; and our culture says oftentimes, “I’m okay, you’re okay, we’re all okay.” We don’t like to be challenged and so we settle with both the good and the bad, the virtue and the vice.
In today’s gospel, John the Baptist uses an image that may be puzzling to us, but that would have been powerful indeed to his original audience. Speaking of the coming Messiah, he says, “His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn….” A threshing floor was a flat piece of ground on which stalks of harvested grain would be laid and subsequently pressed or crushed, so as to separate the edible wheat from the inedible chaff. Then, with a winnowing fan—a kind of pitch-fork—a farmer would throw the mixture of wheat and chaff into the air, so that the wind would carry off the lighter chaff and leave the heavier wheat behind. This act of separation was indispensible to the preparation of good bread.
The Messiah, John the Baptist is telling us, will perform a similar work on our minds and hearts. He will separate the good from the bad, the loving from the wicked, the godly from the self-absorbed. In a sense, he will bring with him a kind of dis-ease for those who are diseased. But who are these diseased?
When most of us allow the better angels of our nature to exist and dwell alongside our inner demons…our souls, made for holiness, to dwell at the same time with our sins…then the result is a spiritual hodge-podge, a conundrum, a dis-ease. And when Christ approaches us, he comes with his winnowing fan, which means he will toss things around a bit! This may help explain why in other places Christ says he will come with a sword, to set the world afire, and so on.
Last week, I began giving some reflections on Pope Francis’ recent exhortation titled, “The Joy of the Gospel.” But for some, “the joy” has been hard to receive, to accept and to digest. I would suggest that Pope Francis is gently challenging all of us to examine how we have put the gospel into play in our world, our communities, even our parishes and homes. I’d further suggest that while it may be very uncomfortable to hear his words and instructions, it may just be that the gospel message, shared by Francis, is a bit like the winnowing fan of the Messiah. Let me explain.
As far as I’ve heard, even from his very first hours as pope, Francis made some within the Church very uncomfortable: “he didn’t wear the proper vesture when he was introduced on the loggia of St. Peter’s upon his election,” was spoken by a few; “he’s not wearing the right faccia—or sash—around his waist”; “he’s not going to live in the papal palace where he should” and so on. Those who had wanted the Office of Pope to remain regal and distanced from the people, with strictures aplenty, we’re uncomfortable with Francis’ simple style and even offended by his somewhat gentler/simpler liturgical practices.
Then, a few months later, speaking informally with reporters, Francis attempted to have a simple conversation about general questions. From his remarks, all of us heard that he was going to abandon the celibate, male priesthood in favor of other proposed models; we heard that he was not so staunch in his condemnation of abortion or issues of human sexuality and the like. Although these reports spread, these were not his actual thoughts, nor was he going to abandon and undo all that had been accomplished in the church these last 30 years. So all of this led to great confusion and, you guessed it, lots of concern about him as pope, and lots of discomfort for many in and outside the Church. The winnowing fan of Christ must, by its very nature, toss things about, but we should not fear; for we’re speaking of Christ, the Messiah, our Emmanuel—God with us.
And so, in his exhortation, Pope Francis continues to thrash the wheat of our self-understanding, as possessors of the Words of Life in the Gospel, as the Church. Francis is asking us, inviting us to greater examination of our selves within the Church so that at one and the same time, with the same Spirit, we can then announce this Gospel to the rest of the world…this Gospel of Joy in the Lord Jesus.
So, for example, when Francis invites us to consider how each and every one of us is called to evangelize, to proclaim the Gospel within the world, he is challenging us to preach Christ—and no other—with joy. He is prodding us to step outside of our little parish church and go out to seek those who are necessarily thirsty for the Truth. Francis is inviting us to look again and see that Christ came for the salvation of all, not merely a chosen few. Yes, we are fortunate to possess this message, but we possess it not in order to hide it or protect it, but rather to share it and allow it the fullness of growth. Likewise, when speaking of financial conditions throughout the world, Francis is not speaking as a socialist or any other politician of a certain stripe; instead, he is simply reflecting on gospel values of concern for the poor and care for others when one is so richly blessed. Instead of excluding those who ‘have not’, those who possess riches are again invited to possess, as well, the gift of compassion for the poor and the needy and, from this compassion, then reach out to them, weep with them and share living amongst and amidst them…finally being able to see truly that there is no “other”; but instead there is only “another”…a sister or a brother in our family of God’s love.
Interestingly, Francis does understand how he is or is not being perceived correctly or honestly. He admits that in our day of instant communication and snippets, the Truth of the Gospel and all of its underpinnings will not be readily known or even researched in order to gain fuller understanding. But rather than allow such media bias to stunt our mission, we must be ready to preach a fuller gospel—grounded in Truth, yes—but attractive and captivating for all. Pope Francis goes on to challenge bishops and priests to preach well, allowing parishioners access to the Truth, as deep and as high as it reaches. Yes, Francis is challenging us to preach better! In the same breath, moreover, Francis challenges all of the faithful to then, in turn, strengthen your brothers in their faith, to preach in your own personal way the joy of the Gospel message, not as a disjointed set of doctrines to be insistently imposed, but rather, as a most grand, most beautiful, most appealing, most necessary news for all people, in all times and all places.
So, to take Francis’ advice to heart, allow me to give some personal, practical advice from an oft-unseen spectator:
- When I was a priest after only a few years, somewhere inside of me lay an unknown wish that every other priest be more like me…only then would lots of problems be solved. And how naïve and arrogant that attitude was! While placing judgment upon others, I was thus condemning myself of idolatry, of uncharitable desires and self-absorption. In this view, I was actually claiming that I didn’t need a Christ, that I was enough. The lesson for us: do we think we’re good enough or even better than others? Do we gossip and thus give public scandal to our faith? These are some of the things that hurt us as evangelizers and missionaries of the Church.
- In this busy season, don’t speed or honk your horn in disgust while driving: let another in your lane of traffic, be patient and kind, be generous with those who aren’t generous.
- Don’t hate those who hate you…pray for their good, honestly and often.
- Don’t judge others, rather encourage them and build them up…rewarding them for instances of goodness…for surely everyone has a few virtues.
- Pray with your kids and teach them of God: this will be the greatest gift you can give. It won’t rot and can’t be stolen and once they know of God’s love, challenge them to live within it, sharing it generously with all others, no matter who.
- Let’s hold each other accountable: not to condemn, but rather to encourage right-responsibility within our communities. So, for example, don’t be quick to dismiss a wrong, but in love, challenge the wrong-doer. When a teacher gives you bad news about your child, presume the teacher is correct in their assessment…kids make mistakes and sometimes do bad things: they’re kids who will grow up one day and we need all of us to be responsible members of a greater society than our own little spheres.
- Don’t spread rumors or gossip, don’t write anonymous letters, don’t cyber-bully another…all of these show an extreme lack of care, reverence and respect for human persons made in God’s image. We can disagree sometimes, but in all times, we must demonstrate that we’ve been purchased by Christ on the cross…and for this, we are very worthy creatures indeed.
- Confess your sins. Purely and simply put, it’s really good for us. Confession stirs us, thrashes us, comforts us, blesses us and relieves us…it ultimately gives us great peace. And by doing so, we are being reminded of our need for Christ the Savior.
I could go on and on, but we have the rest of Advent to consider the joy of the Gospel, the challenge of His message, and the wonder of God coming among us. Suffice it to say, from the very heart of the Gospel, we are to proclaim the whole Christ: a Messiah with a winnowing fan yes, who will thrash us, but instead of having the purpose of destroying us, he possesses the divine purpose, the holy goal of our redemption, the salvation of all souls, because of his great love for us.
And it is this same Messiah who we await this Advent. It is this same Lord who invites us again and again to know Him and to fall deeply in love with him, so that—whether in the sacrament of reconciliation or in everyday missionary activities and encounters with others—we might find in Him a loving Lord of Truth and Life.
God bless you again this week.