“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you,” says St Augustine in his famous Confessions. Thankfully, as we enter the second week of Advent, the Prince of Peace gives us graces to achieve peace of mind and heart.

When the Lord touches us, life changes for the better. So it was with Jesse, a sheep farmer in Bethlehem, whose youngest son David received God’s call to be the king of Israel. David’s reign and that of his son Solomon formed a golden era, but soon thereafter Israel began to produce godless kings.

In those dark hours, Isaiah’s prophecy, heard in today’s First Reading (Is 11: 1-10), was heart-warming: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots”. That regal shoot would be wise and clever like Solomon; prudent and strong like David; knowledgeable and respectful like Moses and the Patriarchs.

Clearly, Isaiah’s words referred to the Messiah. Born seven centuries later, Jesus was that “root of Jesse” who would provide an ensign to the peoples, both Gentiles and pagans. The Jews, long awaiting a Messiah, did not acknowledge the Carpenter’s Son; it was their loss and our gain, for now we can hope for the Lord’s Second Coming, when, “Justice shall flourish and peace till the moon fails.” (Ps 71: 7-8) And “justice” (meaning, sanctity or victory over sin) will bring about peace.

The Gospel of St Matthew (3: 1-12) takes us back to Isaiah who had pointed to the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight’” – unmistakably the future John the Baptist! His message is as relevant today as it was when Jewish high society’s observance of religious precepts was mere tokenism – or façadism. They were formalist and materialist, just as the world today is consumerist to boot.

What a far cry from the austere life of the Baptiser; like the prophets of old, especially St Elijah (cf. 2 Kings 1:8), he wore a garment of camel’s hair, strapped a leather belt around his waist, and survived on locusts and wild honey. His mission was to serve: by announcing the Good News, baptising[1] the repentant, and denouncing the wicked. He called the bluff of the Pharisees and the Sadducees[2] – that “brood of vipers” – demanding that they “bear fruit that befits repentance” rather than bask in the glory of Abraham.

The promise of salvation continues through the Church. St Paul (Rom 15: 4-9) was convinced that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Jesus followed the law even while he sought to perfect it. Circumcision is a case in point: The act, which was at the heart of God’s covenant with Abraham, was meant to retrench and restrain the animal man as it removed a part of his body.[3] Yes, Christians do without it, for, as St Thomas of Aquinas noted, circumcision was only “a figure of baptism”— meaning to say, baptism has superseded it!

Salvation is a long story of great promise! But St John the Baptist does not fail to caution that a time will come (the Final Judgement) when “every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire”. When the Lord comes again, He will divide the wheat from the chaff; He will “gather His wheat into the granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Two millennia ago, St John the Baptist was privileged to see the incomparable First Coming of Jesus; repentance is fundamental for those of us who wish to witness His glorious Second Coming and be part of that story of great promise.

[1] St John himself points to how Jesus would baptise differently: “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance . . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Mt 3:11).

[2] The Pharisees were zealous observers of the law and of oral tradition; the Sadducees hailed from priestly families and were politically connected, despising tradition and sticking to the written law; a third group comprised the Scribes, who were doctors of the law that interpreted the Torah.

[3] Cf. https://www.catholic.com/encyclopedia/circumcision

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