Second Sunday of Advent • Year C

Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Is 11:1-10
Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
Rom 15:4-9
Mt 3:1-12

For children, this time of year is loaded with wonder and questions. The mysterious workings of Santa Claus are a constant source of marvel to the very young. How does Santa get through the chimney? Does he really know who has been naughty and nice? How does everyone in Santa’s workshop keep warm at the North Pole? Why won’t the lazy reindeer at the zoo fly?

So, too, nativity sets with empty mangers give rise to questions about where Jesus is, who the wise men were, and what ever happened to the presents they brought.

And this: Why do people give fruit as Christmas gifts? I was genuinely puzzled by this as a child. Why would someone give as a gift something healthy, and readily available at the A & P? Even more odd, why do the people who receive the fruit seem happy about it? Why aren’t they angry at getting fruit instead of candy or cake? Oranges, apples, and pears can be carefully placed in fancy boxes, with plenty of gold tissue paper and ribbon, with wedges of cheese and little packets of crackers – but none of that changes the fact you have been given fruit as a Christmas gift!

Of course, I was too inexperienced to know that there is fruit, and then there is fruit. In our nation, we are blessed to be able to buy oranges and apples at the local store on the coldest day of the bleakest month of the longest winter. Our economy makes the question of what fruit is in season almost meaningless. But for the adult palate, there are differences in type, texture, and flavor that make Fuji apples and sun-ripened oranges and Bosc pears a special treat. But for most children, fruit is fruit. The best apple is still just an apple.

In today’s gospel, John the Baptist has fruit on his mind. He is dealing with people who also think all fruit is equal. And he is giving them a lesson in the differences between ordinary and gourmet apples. “When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.”

John declares that the kingdom of God is near, that the Christ is almost at hand, that men and women must repent and make a straight path in their hearts for the coming of the Messiah. This is no time to fool around with the usual perfunctory repentance and sub- par contrition. The Baptist is preparing men and women to meet the Lamb of God. Only someone who truly knows and deeply repents his sins can give Jesus Christ a proper welcome. And so, when some Pharisees and Sadducees come forward to receive baptism, John doesn’t caramel-coat the situation. It’s put-up or shut-up time: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” Christ the master of the harvest is close at hand.

John the Baptist makes it clear that he is not talking about fruit from the corner store, not asking sinners to offer whatever dried-up, leftover fruit they may find at the back of the refrigerator. “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.’” Plenty of unrepentant sinners have holy grand- parents. Social connections, family background, and religious upbringing are no proof of virtue or evidence of repentance. To grow from the root of Jesse is not enough, if one has no care for justice. The true heirs of the promises made to the patriarchs are those who bring forth the good fruit of real repentance, those who glorify God for his faithfulness and mercy, comfort the afflicted, teach the lost, guard the weak, and welcome the stranger.

“Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” John is speaking to us. Christ the master of the harvest is close at hand. We have time, but not much. Advent is short, the holdiays are brief, the winter lies beyond them, and Christ demands evidence of repentance. If these special days slip away without acts of forgiveness and compassion, then what fruit will the harvest master find? If anger between husband and wife, parent and child, brother and sister goes untouched by the forgiveness of the One who will soon rest in the manger at Bethlehem, what can we offer in its place? If the poor are no happier and the hungry no fuller and the lonely no more comforted, what Christmas carol on our lips or creche in our homes will be pleasing to the Messiah?

John the Baptist reminds us that there is the Advent of children and the Advent of adults. The Advent of children is a time of wondering how things work, and what gifts they will receive. The Advent of adults must be a time of giving, of sacrifice and forgiveness, of the true repentance the Lord most desires. Christ wants that good fruit from us today.

From now on, ordinary fruit is no better than broccoli, no sweeter than celery, as bitter as burnt Brussel sprouts. Now is the season for juicy grapes, plump strawberries, and sweet oranges. Now is the season for real mercy, true generosity, and loving sacrifice.

Christ, the master of the harvest, is close at hand.