Friday, December 2, 2016

More than Chaff

2nd Sunday of Advent (A)

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St. John the Baptist
Cherubic angels. Shepherds. A babe lying in a manger. Eggnog and candy canes. These are the images we typically associate with the time of year leading up to the Christmas season. But what images do we find in our gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent? A brood of vipers. A coming wrath. An unquenchable fire. What happened to the cherubic angels?

Well, if you've ever looked up what a Cherub actually is (from the Latin cherubim), you know they are far from cute and cuddly. These angels are described in Ezekiel as having four faces (one each of a man, an eagle, a lion and an ox), four wings, and four arms. I imagine they would be terrifying to any who saw them, especially if they were not prepared for the encounter.

If that is true of God's angels, it is certainly true of God Himself. That is precisely why John the Baptist is trying to prepare us for our coming encounter with the Divine.

He describes Jesus, the Son of God, in rather frightening terms, with a winnowing fan is in his hand. Winnowing is a technique used in agriculture to separate grain from chaff. A farmer come harvest time wants to collect and save the grain, which is useful to make bread. But there is also a lot of other plant material; things like husks and straw. There may also be insects and other pests mixed in. All of this is useless; about all it is good for was burning. This chaff is separated out by winnowing.

St. John the Baptist describes Jesus as ready to winnow. He's going to "gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff" (the useless stuff) "he will burn with unquenchable fire." Jesus means business. This is scary stuff, for those who are not ready.

This is why John preaches of the need for repentance. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! ... Prepare the way of the Lord!" The word "repent" comes from the Latin poenitire, which means "to make sorry." But it is a translation of the Greek word metanoia which means "to change one's mind." So our English word "repent" means both to change your mind and to become sorry for something. That begs the question: What should we be sorry for? What do we need to change our minds about?

We want to be wheat and not chaff. We would rather be stored in Jesus' barn than be burned in an unquenchable fire. St. Johns call us to repentance implies that we are chaff and not wheat. But this is obviously a metaphor. What does it mean in real life? What makes us chaff and how can we stop being that?

Chaff is defined by what it is not. There is no part of the plant called "chaff." The farmer wants the grain of the wheat. Chaff is everything else. It's the useless bits. So let's be blunt about it. You are chaff when you are useless to God.

Why would you be useless to God? God made you, after all. Why would He make something useless? The answer is that He didn't! God made you for a reason. He made you with a purpose in mind. Your primary purpose is to know and love God, and your secondary purpose is to love your neighbor. How each of us is specifically called to fulfill this purpose in our life is called our vocation

God didn't make us to be useless, but we become so though sin. My students hear me often describe sin as "a failure to love." Each sin we commit is a failure to love God and/or neighbor (usually both). Each sin we commit is a decision to act against God's design for us. Each sin we commit is a decision to be something less than what God made us to be. Sin is useless, and it makes us useless. It makes us chaff.

St. John's call to repentance is a wake up call to stop being useless! Search your soul! Seek out and identify whatever sins lie in your heart and change your mind about them! Learn to regret these failures of love in your life. Ignore all these fell-good motivational memes telling you to live without regrets. They offer false comfort. We all have sins in our past. Own up to them so that you can repent from them. Turn away from sin and turn toward love. 

A gospel about "unquenchable fire" may not seem like good news to us. But here's the good news. Before the Master of the Harvest comes in Justice at the end of time, He comes in Mercy at the "fullness of time" (Gal 4:4). Before He comes to winnow the wheat from the chaff, He comes to lay His head in a bed of hay. I'm speaking, of course, of the first advent of Christ in the Incarnation.

St. Athanasius spoke of the Incarnation in these terms: "The Son of God became man so that we might become God." This is what is referred to as divinization. We don't literally become God, but we become like Him.We do this by cooperating with His grace.

It is interesting that John the Baptist uses the metaphor of chaff and wheat, because Jesus describes Himself as wheat. Referring to His own death and resurrection, He said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24). Wheat is used to make bread, and Jesus referred to Himself as "the bread of life" (Jn 6:35). For us to become wheat, means we must become like Jesus. 

We cannot do this on our own. It requires cooperation. We must do our part and heed the call of John the Baptist. Repent from your sins! Make straight the path for Jesus into your heart! Welcome Him in! And then trust God do His work in your life. Cooperate with His will. Practice virtue. Grow in holiness. Learn to love. He did not make you to be useless. He did not make you to be chaff. He made you to be wheat, as He is wheat -- something that needs to die and be broken up so that it may bear good fruit.

A medieval depiction of winnowing.

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