In this beautiful homily for 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A, Father Hanly talks about metanoia. He then tells the story, with his father’s permission, of how his father turned his life around with Alcoholics Anonymous.
First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
Second Reading: Romans 15:4-9
Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
In today’s preparation for the coming of Christmas, John the Baptist enters the scene.
And you all know that Jesus and John the Baptist knew each other since childhood. In fact, Mary made the journey all the way to John the Baptist’s mother’s house when she was pregnant with him, after she was told that she would become the mother of the Messiah. And so it was the two got along very well together, apparently.
And John, when he grew up, he went to a very special kind of mission. And that mission was to be the forerunner of the Messiah. How he ever knew that this would be his, we do not know. But we know that he spent some time with the Essenes and these were a group of strict observance Jews waiting for the Messiah and he felt quite at home there. And, of course, as the years passed, Jesus himself grew to manhood, left the carpenter’s bench and went off into the Jordan Valley and was baptised by John.
John the Baptist is a wonderful figure, a very courageous man. He could get maybe a little out of hand he was so dedicated to the coming of the kingdom of God and the meaning of what God was doing. And he knew that God was doing it, not out of revenge for sin as some people think, he was doing it to save and heal the people that somehow had turned away from Him.
And so his message was “Repent.” But it wasn’t repent the way we think about it. The way we think about repentance is you come down on your knees and bang your head on the floor and say how sorry you are. He was talking about something quite different. He was talking about…
The word “repentance” means metanoia. Metanoia is the word that is used when we say, “Come back to the Lord.” And what it really means is to turn your life around. Stop walking all over the place in those silly little pasts, full of harm for yourself and hopelessness for others, and come back. He is calling. The Messiah is here.
And anyone who stood in their way, as very often certain Pharisees and Sadducees, who thought that they were spokesmen for God and spoke a very, very harsh kind of religion, a religion of rules and regulations that had no heart and no feeling, when he turned on them his anger came out.
Because they would see sin as breaking the law. But John the Baptist knew that sin was a failure to love, and it still is. It’s a failure to love, to do what you know you should do, to be the kind of person you know that you can become, to do and walk with Jesus, for Jesus has come for only one purpose and it is to teach us how to love.
Sin is not a series of little imperfections.
I remember when I was in the seminary, we used to have, at the very beginning of Noviciate year, the spiritual year, our rector would bring us in one by one and we were supposed to work on our predominant fault, the fault that led us into sin, you see.
And he asked me. And I was very proud as a little kid and I said, “Well, I think my fault is the same fault as Lucifer.” And Lucifer’s fault was pride, you see. Very, very fancy. And my spiritual director was a Dutchman, Van den Bogaard. He looks at me and he says, “Denis, you’re Irish, aren’t you?” I said, “Yeah, my parents are Irish.” And he said, “Pride isn’t your sin. You’re just lazy.” Well, I totally collapsed, you know. There was my wonderful sin going out the window.
But I tell this story for a very important reason. We were told in the seminary not to be afraid to admit that we were sinful. It wasn’t something to be afraid of. Why? Because Jesus has come and has walked into this world to say, “I am bringing you back to joy and peace.” And don’t be afraid to admit that you have feelings and failures, and that you fail yourself and you fail your family and you fail your God, the Bible says seven times a day.
This is not the danger to your joy, to your happiness, to the kind of life that you know that you wish to lead and can lead and do lead most of the time, and that is a life of love, love for each other, love for God, love for the people that come into your life, even rarely or every day.
Metanoia: a very, very important word for Lent. Metanoia: to turn yourself around, to leave behind all the nonsense and the poverty of your life, not meaning physical poverty but moral poverty, and to try once again to take His hand and walk through your life. Because He will lead you into a life that is full of deeper meaning, sometimes pain, but a deeper understanding, a deeper meaning that you might embrace something that your heart hungers to embrace, which is God’s love and the love of Jesus and the love of your friends and the love of each other.
To close this, I have to tell you what metanoia means to me, in one particular aspect of my life, and it involved my father and he has given me full permission to tell this most intimate story.
When my father came to the United States, he met my mother, married and they had three children. My father was a wonderful father, very… in many, many ways very good. But what happened, he also had a habit of drinking and he was an alcoholic. Now, if you… I’m sure all of you are aware, there is a difference between social drinking and alcoholism. Alcoholism is a compunction. It grabs you by the throat. It dictates your life. It does terrible things to lovely people.
And my mother was well aware of this so she used to get quite angry if he didn’t come home in time for supper. And he came home much later, sometimes 3 o’clock in the morning, and she would be waiting for him because she knew she had a rule that, if you get drunk, you must sober up out of the house. “I will not have you this way in front of your children.”
My father was very humble minded. He really was. And he felt terrible. And my mother would really bawl him out in a very loud voice. And my two sisters and I, in our various rooms, would hear it and we would feel quite sad.
And then at the end of it, though, my mother was very good. She would send him in and he had to apologise to me and he apologised to my older sister and then my younger sister. And he would always say, “I’ll never do it again.” And he would try his best. But it hung onto him and, after a few weeks, it would happen again.
But what my mother did, which was very clever, after he apologised and she sent him to his room, she would go in to each of us and say this, she would say, “Your father is a wonderful man. He’s kind, he’s good, he sacrifices much for us. His life is difficult. But he’s sick and I have to talk to him this way so that he will recognise that it’s his illness.”
Now in those days, alcoholics were just given up. There was no place for them. If you were rich, you could dry out in a wealthy hospital, but if you were poor, they considered you nothing and you gradually went downhill all the way. But a group called Alcoholics Anonymous had started during my father’s lifetime and my mother was the first one to acquaint herself.
Alcoholics Anonymous, as you all know, is people who drink, trying to help each other to be able to turn their lives around. It’s a metanoia. You feel, before it happens, that you cannot do anything but be unhappy on and off for the rest of your life. But then, suddenly, this new idea comes in, and it’s as old as the Bible. It’s turn yourself around. Come away from all that is causing you this pain, and come and walk with God. For the one rule for Alcoholics Anonymous is this: you must surrender to the mercy and kindness and love of God.
And this is what John the Baptist was doing, pouring out water. He wasn’t just saying you have five or six little sins and make a good act of contrition. He was saying you must turn your life around, because sin will destroy you. Gradually it will take away all that you hold near and dear.
The last time he came into my room, I remember very well. He came in and he sat down. My mother had told him he had to come in and apologise. And he said to me, “I promise that tonight was my last drink. I promise that.” And for some reason, I believed him. I could feel that something was touching him and, of course, it was the grace of God. And from that moment on, he apologised for all of the things that he had felt had hurt me by his drinking.
And from that moment on, he had a new life. Now, he joined AA and he gave us the most wonderful life, a life based not just on not drinking anymore, but a whole metanoia. He turned his whole life around and we were privileged to walk with him for the next thirty years in great peace knowing that he had not only changed his life, but the whole family.
I say that because sometimes we can use words like “sin” maybe too casually. Or we think that “Well, little sins here and little sins there.”
But what Jesus is saying to us, when you turn your life back to God totally and completely and you walk with Him, then you will understand what His true love is. For to sin is a failure to love, and to give yourself in love and self-sacrificing love to each other, to your family, to your community.
And you begin to understand that this is why Jesus came, to bring the world back to joy and to peace and to happiness and to unity and to caring. But you have to turn your life around and surrender to God.
And the other thing you must never forget is you must always, always, say sorry when you hurt someone. And he would do that very faithfully.
This is Christmas time. John the Baptist comes and stands before us, tough words but beautiful words. He is saying “Prepare your heart for the way of the Lord.” Whatever is standing in the way of you loving, not just God but each other, and caring, get rid of it, throw it aside.
For every Christmas is a new life, a new beginning, a new hope, a new joy, not just for we ourselves but for the people that touch us every day of our lives.
And then we will understand what Christmas really is. Christmas is to live with a loving, kind, forgiving Father who will lead us with Jesus safely home.