Taking the Son
Sermon preached by the Rev. Dominique Peridans
on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
December 5, 2021
Years ago: a very wealthy man, a devoted son, and a shared passion for art. Father and
son traveled the world, adding only the finest to their collection. A piquant Picasso, a
turbulent Turner, a captivating Cassatt and others adorned the walls of the family estate.
The widowed father rejoiced in his only child become discerning art collector. The day
came, however, when war engulfed the nation. The young man left to serve his country.
Three months passed and the father received a telegram: his beloved son killed while
carrying a fellow soldier to the field hospital.
Christmas morning: a knock at the door. The man opened and was greeted by a soldier
with a large box in hand. “I was a friend of your son”, he said. “I was the one he was
rescuing when he died. I would like to give you something.” The old man opened the
box, to discover a portrait of his son painted by the soldier. Not an art critic
collectible, the painting did convey striking detail of the son’s face and captured his
The following spring, the old man passed away. And the art world was in anticipation!
According to his will, all the works of art would be auctioned. The day arrived. A room
full of expert collectors. The auction began, however, with a painting not on the list: the
portrait of his son painted by the soldier. The auctioneer asked, “Who will open the
bidding with $100?”. Silence. From the back of the room, someone sneered, “Who
cares about a quaint picture? Let’s move on to the important works.” Others nodded in
agreement. The auctioneer replied, “No, we have to sell this one first. Now, who will
take the son?” Silence. Finally, a friend of the old man spoke. “I knew the boy, so I’d like to have it.” “I have a bid for $100,” called the auctioneer. “Will anyone go higher?”
Silence. “Going once. Going twice. Gone.” And the gavel fell. Cheers filled the room and
someone said, “Now we can get on with it!” But the auctioneer announced that the
auction was over. Silence. Then, “What do you mean it’s over? What about all these
paintings? The auctioneer replied, “It’s very simple. According to the will of the father,
whoever takes the son...gets it all.”
John the Baptist understood that “whoever takes the son, gets it all”, and he would do
anything and give everything to take the son. Here we indeed see in him the inner
freedom to address forcefully whatever may diminish God, His Messiah or His Chosen
People and such instrumental attractiveness that “the people were filled with
expectation, and were questioning…whether he might be the Messiah.”
John is here, with us, to “prepare the way of the Lord and make straight his
paths” (Luke 3:4). John the Baptist was fashioned by God, prepared from the womb,
filled with the Holy Spirit, to become the last of the prophets, a calling to which he
responded without reservation. John the Baptist is deliberately, lovingly relative to
Christ, a relationship in which he finds his strength and his joy, and is both docile and
zealous. His zeal makes him unconcerned with peer pressure or review and
uncompromising. What makes for strong uncompromising character? Love.
When we really love, we do not tolerate anything that diminishes the one we love.
So, what exactly occurs here? Crowds are coming to this oddly compelling man, “to be
baptized by him”, as he had been preaching must occur. Being the refined socialite
that he is, he calls them a “brood of vipers”! Sure to win over the crowd! Imagine him in our day—with no trigger warnings!
St John Chrysostom, significant early theologian and Bishop, died 407) tells us that The holy Scripture often gives the names of wild beasts to persons, according to the passions which excite them, calling them vipers for their cunning. John will appeal to their cunning.
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance”, John then exhorts. What are these fruits?
St. Maximus the Confessor (theologian, born in Israel, died in Georgia 662) speaks of
the fruit that is equanimity, literally “evenness of soul”, a fruit “worthy of repentance”.
A difficult expression which, per Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (390), suggests fruitfulness that touches many people, that has a particularly powerful ripple effect. Is “evenness of soul” not the peace that surpasses understanding, fruit of divine love and divine light at work in us, the peace, which we often wish one another, that creates a safe space for many?
John then warns them not to presume religious inheritance and, by implication, not to
misuse authority as power instead of service. The connection with Abraham that
matters is a spiritual one and is a gift. Entitlement suffocates the spiritual life.
The verse that follows is difficult to hear and understand: Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is
cut down and thrown into the fire. You may be asking: what is this fire? I bet some of us think it is the fire of hell. Not too quick! What is “good news” here, as the last verse tells us. Jesus’ purpose is to introduce humanity, us, to and in-to God. For this, He prunes us, He purifies our hearts. We must be holy to enter the Holy. St. Gregory of Nazianzus (another great 4th -century theologian) tells us that “the ax is our redeemer.” Jesus Himself. Jesus comes close, like an ax at the root, touching the core of who we are, mercifully loving even what is barren in our hearts unto fruitfulness. Rather than the painful, damning fire of separation, is this perhaps not the merciful purifying, purgatorial fire of divine love?
Finally, how do we cooperate with this? “What should we do?” John advises the
crowds, the tax collectors, the soldier, us: hearts wide open. Willingness. Generous
hearts. We prepare the way of the Lord by willingness to love one another. The straight
path and the fruit that pleases the Lord is an open heart.
Advent is all about allowing the Holy Spirit to open our hearts sometimes closed by
sadness, confusion, bitterness, fatigue—even refusal, and moving us to love one another, even those whom our hearts deem enemies.
Come, Holy Spirit, enkindle in us the fire of your love.