User’s Guide to Sunday: John’s Message Is for Me

Reflections on Sunday, Dec. 4

(photo: Register Files)

Sunday, Dec. 4, is the Second Sunday of Advent (Year A). Mass Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

When Jesus comes into the world, he is called “the Word of God.” John is the voice that announces that Word. We would do well to listen.

John delivers his message in two ways: one for the simple; another for the wise Pharisees. The simple need to accept the Lord; the Pharisees need to humble themselves first to be capable of accepting the Lord.

To the simple, he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!”

But he has to bring the wise down a peg for them to hear him. He says: “You brood of vipers! … Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. 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. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.”

We should listen to whichever message is appropriate for us.

Are we broken people who know we need to repent? Or do we feel like we’ve got it made? If we are the latter, John’s message to the Pharisees is for us, too.

His message is harsh. It has to be. Regarding “the ax is at the root” — John is not just announcing a new phase in the Jewish religion; he is announcing a new life founded in Christ. He is not just announcing a pruning; he is announcing a chopping down of the tree.

This is exactly what Isaiah said would happen in the first reading. A new sprout would come, a new tree from Jesse. It would bring about a new order in which “The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.”

This radical new order will be brought about by repentance and baptism. It is in this repentance and offer of pardon that John makes straight the path for the coming of the Lord.

“I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,” says John, but Jesus will do more. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

This Advent is the time to make our choice. St. Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea reports that when a king in ancient times welcomed a newborn son, he would grant a pardon throughout the land. Thus, with the Advent of Christ, the newborn king, John says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at

Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

He is the author of What Pope Francis Really Said.