The readings of this Sunday are the last ones of Advent which focus mainly on the second coming of Jesus at the end of time. They are bursting with joy and anticipation.
In the first reading, Israel is invited to sing and shout for joy, to exult with all her heart at the definitive presence of the Lord among them. His presence will be the end of all fear of every enemy. Not only that, but the Lord himself will exult with joy at being among his people at last. He will renew Israel with his love and dance with shouts of joy over her.
In the second reading, St. Paul is so aware of the presence of Jesus to himself and to the Philippians that all he can talk about is their happiness, there being no need to worry any more, there being the peace of God among them which is so much greater than can be understood.
At first sight, the Gospel reading seems to have more threatening tones. John the Baptist is handing out demands to different categories of people concerning their moral behaviour. He spoke with such clarity and authority due to his own holiness of lifestyle that people began to think that the Messiah promised had arrived. But John makes no false claims. He brings himself down to size: “I am not worthy to undo his sandals.” Then he describes Jesus in tones which might instil fear, not joy. He will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire; and he will divide men into chaff or wheat with clear consequences for their eternal fate.
The truth is that only those who have chosen lives which are radically unworthy of themselves and of the Lord need have any fear. When John says Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire he is speaking of the fullness of love that Jesus will pour out on the Cross. Jesus himself says elsewhere in the Gospel: “I have come to bring fire to the earth and how I wish it were blazing already. There is a baptism I am yet to receive and how great is my anguish until it is over.” Again, this refers to the fire of divine love which is the Holy Spirit in person. The baptism is his death and resurrection in which he cleanses creation of sin.
When the Lord returns in glory, the bible and our Advent tradition say that the hearts of men will be cleansed. In other words, the Holy Spirit will baptise us with the fire of God, the love of God which alone can cleanse the heart. Our hearts get soiled and dirty when we choose not to love, which is just another way of saying when we choose to sin. Sin weakens, soils and can destroy the relationship of love between ourselves, our neighbour and our God. Nothing of this can remain at the end of time. In the twinkling of an eye we shall be changed, says St. Paul, at the resurrection of the dead. Part of that change will be the final purification of our entire being from all that is not worthy of God. It will be an intense experience of the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit, similar to what happens when a soul in purgatory is purged of any lingering venial sin.
It is this presence of the Lord, this active and cleansing presence, this presence which destroys and puts to flight for ever our enemies which will enable us spontaneously to sing and shout for joy, for great in our midst will then be the Holy One of Israel. He will be in the midst of every heart and all hearts. The fire of his love will make every heart catch fire and make us exult for joy while the Lord himself will dance with exultation because he has renewed us definitively in his love. Then we will be happy, always happy in the Lord. Then the peace of God will forever embrace our deepest souls.
So, baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire is far from anything to be afraid of. It is rather the end of fear. It is a baptism which brings to eternal fruition the baptism we received at the font on this earth. Then we were cleansed of original sin and any personal sin we had; then the pledge of the Holy Spirit was given to us; then we were given the fire or “pilot light” of divine love to set us on our way to live like Christ as Christians. On the way, if we have sinned, we have been cleansed and cleansed again by the sacraments. In confirmation we received the tongues of fire to speak the pure truth and to love with pure love. In our sufferings, we have been tested and proved like gold in a furnace, transforming and reshaping us little by little to be true images of Jesus.
And, surely, we have also all experienced joy, true Christian joy in some way and to some degree. Maybe we have not been able to dance like St. Teresa of Avila or like the Lord, but we have felt that deep and warm certainty of knowing he loves us with an everlasting love.
Don’t allow the memory of sin once confessed or otherwise forgiven to drown out your memory and expectation of the love of God for you. No failure, no sin, no mistake of whatever kind or number has anything like the power to quench the fire of the Holy Spirit. So, don’t you let it. You are not defined by your sins but by the Lord’s mercy. Don’t yield a millimetre to the suggestions of evil that somehow you will never be forgiven, or you will never get to heaven because of this or that in your past. If God has forgiven you, who dare condemn you? What right does Satan the Accuser have to beat you down when the power of God has raised you up? If you sin, get rid of it quickly to prevent it from putting down roots and colouring your thoughts with its dull and grey whining. Run to the Lord, ask for a burst of fire from the Spirit to cleanse your heart and set you once more confident and filled with hope on your journey.
Look for ways to do good, to be positive, to see the glass half full, to see the silver lining. Ask the Lord to lift up that heavy pull downwards within and to anchor it in heaven so that it will pull you upwards. Cultivate a moral and spiritual ecology or “green” way of thinking. As you don’t want to waste food, don’t waste what feeds your soul. Get rid of the rubbish in your soul properly. Keep the pollution of negative thinking and speaking out of your world.
Think of what it is that attracts you to Christ, to Mary, to thoughts of being with them. Make your mind up to have a real and genuine friendship with Jesus and work out a plan as to how you are going to go about it. Bring him into your everyday life and concerns, ask his view, his advice, his help in simple prayers. Renew your faith, learn more about it, study it, probe, investigate. Learn how to pray more deeply and more generously. Challenge yourself: am I living my life the best way I can? Is my outlook on matters of faith and matters spiritual hackneyed or stuck in the same old, same old? Or is it alive with the Spirit of God and rooted in the living tradition and teaching of the Church? If I am honest, do I live as if God were my all or am I bogged down in things which seem important but, in the end, are not really so? Stir your desires for what is noble and dignifying; be clear and courageous in seeing what might be banal or jaded and resolve to freshen up the face of your soul. Aim high; err on the side of going the extra mile for Christ. Tell him you just love him; you want to be his; you want his feelings in you; you want to think and love as he does.
The fire of passion destroys, but the fire of the passion of Christ creates and recreates. Why not ask him today even for just fifteen minutes: Lord, baptise me again, deeply and without reserve in your Holy Spirit and in the fire of your Heart. Then imagine the Spirit and fire falling upon you and filling you with God.