The Diagnosis

(Homily for First Sunday of Advent - Year B)

Bottom line: An accurate diagnosis is first step toward a cure.

Now that the election is over, it might be safe to tell a political joke: A Democrat and Republican were having lunch together. The Republican was taking the Democrat to task. "You guys," he said, "are ruining the country. You don't respect marriage and human life. You don't know the Ten Commandments. You probably don't even know the Lord's Prayer."

"Wait a minute," the Democrat said, "I do too know the Lord's Prayer." The Republican pulled out a hundred dollar bill and said, "I bet you can't say the Lord's Prayer." The Democrat accepted the bet and began, "Now, I lay me down to sleep..." At that the Republican interrupted him, "Darn," he said, "I didn't think you knew it."

Something is wrong with our society - and Republicans, as well as Democrats, share the blame.* The readings today are about diagnosing the ills of a society. We see it especially in the Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah. Before hearing Isaiah's diagnosis, let's be clear about why a good diagnosis is so important.

All of us know that the first job a doctor has is to make correct diagnosis. For that very reason, many people avoid seeing the doctor. They are afraid of what he will tell them. They have some discomfort, maybe a pain that won't go away, but they are not sure they want to find out the cause. On one level, it is understandable: Who wants to learn they have a serious disease or that they might have to undergo a treatment that will turn their life upside down?

In spite of this natural hesitation, when a person does get the courage to go to the doctor, the diagnosis can be a relief. At least the patient knows what he is dealing with. And an accurate diagnosis is first step toward finding a cure.

In today's first reading, the prophet Isaiah gives a profound, penetrating diagnosis. It is not the one the people wanted to hear. They of course knew something was wrong: They could see their nation falling apart. They had become easy prey for a predatory enemy. But they hoped the prophet would give them softer words. He does not, however, sugar coat things; he doesn't mince words. Here is the diagnosis Isaiah gave them:

All of us have become like unclean people
all our good deeds are like polluted rags;
we have all withered like leaves,
and our guilt carries us away like the wind.

Those are strong words. Isaiah did not have the gentlest bedside manner. When he diagnosed what was wrong with the people, he did not hold anything back. Let's take a closer look at his diagnosis: He is saying that even though the people's external behavior appears OK, inwardly they have become unclean. Sin - going against God's way - has affected even their good deeds. "Our good deeds," he says, "are like polluted rags."

Now, all this sounds a bit somber - maybe even pessimistic. But it had a good outcome: the people took Isaiah seriously and they humbled themselves before God and each other. They didn't get trapped in guilt, but started working together. In the end, thanks to some good leadership, they rebuilt the temple.** It didn't reach its former glory, but it laid the basis for something more important - precisely what we are waiting for during this time of Advent.

Advent is a time to draw close to Jesus as the doctor of our souls. We have to open ourselves to his diagnosis. He has the only remedy for what troubles us.

I read a story that illustrates what Jesus can do for us. It is a true story about the great French scientist, Dr. Louis Pasteur. Among other accomplishments, he developed the rabies vaccine. In July of 1885 a family brought him a boy named Joseph Meister. A rabid dog had bitten Joseph and they begged Dr. Pasteur to help him. Pasteur had not yet perfected the vaccine, but seeing the family's desperation, he decided to make the attempt. After several weeks of treatment, the vaccine proved successful and the boy's life was saved.***

As Dr. Pasteur did for that young man, Jesus wants to do for us. We have been bitten, not by a rabid dog, but by something worse - a power that can destroy us from within. Before we can receive Jesus' cure, we have to accept his diagnosis. We will hear more about that in the coming weeks. Today we light the first candle of our Advent wreath. It represents the light of Christ that can show us the true state of our souls - and brings us the cure we need.

**********

*As well as credit for much that is good.

**See the books of Nehemiah and Haggai.

***Because of his subsequent devotion to the memory of the man who saved him (he became gatekeeper of the Pasteur Institute in Paris), Joseph Meister could be considered a figure of a disciple. The final act of his life, however, vitiates that image.

General Intercessions for the First Sunday of Advent, Cycle B (from Priests for Life)

Spanish Version

From Archives (First Sunday of Advent, Year B):

2014: Preparing Our Hearts Week 1
2011: It Is Right and Just
2008: The Diagnosis
2005: Prepare Yourself
2002: The Gatekeeper
1999: The Last Curtain

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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Fr. Brad's Homilies (well worth listening)

Bulletin (Thanksgiving in the Face of Adversity, Letter from Sister Maritza, History of Advent Wreath, Books for Christmas Gifts)

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