Homily: 3rd Sunday of Advent – Cycle C
St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is arguably the most famous church in the world. And it’s enormous. Inside it’s 614 feet long. In fact, when you enter the doors and stand at the end of its full length and look at the floor, you’ll see that there are markings there indicating its size in comparison to other major churches throughout the world, verifying that quite possibly it is the largest church in the world. The ceiling of the main nave is 145 feet high, and the inside of the dome itself soars to 385 feet. It’s built in the form of a cross and, just to give you a better idea of its size, I would bet that our church—which is not small, by any means—would fit multiple times in one of the side naves of St. Peter’s. Like I said, it’s enormous.
Of course, it is adorned with everything that high Renaissance art could throw at it, which you might think would be overwhelming when you first walk in there. On the contrary, though, there is an incredible sense of balance and proportionality to it all. As I walked through there for the first time I just tried to take it all in. After spending some time in there, however, I started to approach different objects—certain statues, altars, side chapels, etc.—to take a closer look; and when I did I was amazed at the size of each thing. Not only is the Basilica itself huge, everything in it is huge, too!
Standing in the midst of this extraordinariness, it’s easy to forget why it’s even there at all. St. Peter’s Basilica was built over an ancient necropolis (a “city cemetery”) on Rome’s Vatican Hill. This ancient burial ground was very close to one of the places where Romans held sporting events, gladiator fights, and where they sometimes executed criminals. That Roman entertainment complex (which they called “circuses”) was where Saint Peter was crucified and that nearby necropolis was where Saint Peter was buried. It’s amazing to think that such an extraordinary basilica was constructed because of someone so ordinary: a fisherman from Galilee, a remote outpost of the Roman Empire. That’s like saying we were going to build a basilica to honor a line worker from Indiana Packers up in Delphi: on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be any merit for it.
The basilica wasn’t built because of Peter’s merit alone, however. That would be a hard case to sell. He often said the wrong thing, at the wrong time, and Jesus had to correct him. He confessed that he would die with Jesus, but then fled when Jesus was arrested. Worse yet, he denied knowing Jesus three times when he was threatened with arrest for knowing him. No, the basilica wasn’t built over his grave because of his own merits. He was an ordinary fisherman from Galilee through and through. The basilica was built over his grave, rather, because of the extraordinary things that God accomplished through his ordinariness. In other words, it was built to honor the ordinary that God had made extraordinary. And so, we see that, with God, it all starts with the ordinary.
In the Gospel reading last week we heard how people were coming to John the Baptist, responding to his call for a “baptism of repentance” in which they would renounce their sins and then be ritually washed so as to be cleansed from the ritual impurity that their sins caused. Today, we heard how many of these people, having turned away from their sins, sought advice from John about what they should do now that they had been cleansed. Perhaps they thought that he would invite them to join him in his ascetic way of life, abandoning their work and wealth to live in extreme conditions. Perhaps they thought that this kind of extraordinary act would be necessary to complete their cleansing. What they heard, however, wasn’t very extraordinary at all. John said to them: “Whatever you’re doing, do it right. And if you have the chance to help somebody in need, do it.” These were very ordinary things. Nevertheless, John knew that these things would prepare them for the extraordinary transformation that Christ would soon bring.
This transformation is much more dramatic than the words of the Gospel convey on the surface. What John described was fantastical. His baptism was an ordinary baptism: a cleansing with water. Imagine having just experienced that kind of baptism and then to hear him say that the one who will come after him—the one who would be mightier than him—will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire! It would have been shocking and incomprehensible to his hearers. Yet what he was saying to them was, "Do these ordinary things and you'll be ready for this extraordinary experience.”
It’s not hard, sometimes, however, when we’re not sure what the next steps are, to think that we have to do extraordinary things. For example: a couple of years ago my family decided to come to Logansport to visit me for Christmas. I had never hosted my whole family before so I wasn’t sure how to prepare. I started worrying that I would have to do all of these extraordinary things to prepare for their arrival. I soon realized, however, that I had to start with ordinary things: I had to make sure that the house was clean and that it was neatly appointed with festive things. After that, I just had to keep doing what I had been doing and wait for them to come. In the end having them there was a great experience! Extraordinary in every way.
I worry that we sometimes act this way with God. We think that we have to do extraordinary things to get his attention. And that, if we don’t feel like we can do those things (or, perhaps, we’re just not motivated to do those things), we decide to do nothing at all. Yet, as we see throughout the Scriptures and in the lives of the Saints, God wants to meet us in the ordinary: and then to make our ordinary extraordinary.
My brothers and sisters, the most extraordinary event in the history of the world was the birth of Jesus, the divine person who took on our ordinary human flesh in order to save us from sin and death forever. He has already worked an extraordinary transformation in each of us through baptism; and he is coming again to complete our transformation to be like him in glory. Thus, we don't need to be extraordinary ourselves. Rather, we can find joy in the ordinary—the work-a-day here and now—because of the extraordinary that God has promised to make with it.
So, what should we do? Focus on the basics: Repent. Seek the baptism of repentance by turning away from whatever sin in which you may be caught and be cleansed by making a good confession before Christmas. Then, do the work you were given to do in justice and in truth. In other words, pray, share your blessings with the poor, and do your daily work with integrity. Finally, wait in joyful expectation of the one who has already come, who is still with us, and who will come to us again. In these ways, my brothers and sisters—that is, in our faithful obedience to the ordinary—we will be prepared for that day when God will transform our ordinary to be unbelievably extraordinary. Therefore, as Saint Paul exhorts us today, let us “rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again: rejoice!” For the Lord is truly near.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – December 16th, 2018