The Second Sunday of Advent – December 6, 2020
Closing Mass of Passionist Monastery 

Every year on the Second Sunday of Advent – which we celebrate today – the Church offers for our consideration an unusual character:  John the Baptist.  …  Some of the gospels, like today’s passage from Saint Mark, describe him as a rather eccentric fellow, wearing camel skins and eating locusts and wild honey.  …  All of them point to the essence of the message that he boldly proclaimed in the region of the Jordan River, preparing the way for the coming Messiah.

It was common practice in Middle-Eastern culture two thousand years ago that when a local leader was to visit his territory, a servant went ahead of him and cleared the roads of debris and straightened out the rough and rocky paths along which the leader would pass.  …  John the Baptist fulfilled this role for Jesus, but in a different way.  He wasn’t so concerned about preparing the desert roads of Judea but, rather, the hearts of all who longed for the coming of the promised Messiah.

Here’s what he said:  “Repent!  Be forgiven of your sins.  Let go of your past.  Become a new person.  Make your hearts ready for the coming of the Lord!”

We hear these words every Advent.  …  We hear them repeatedly whenever we gather for worship in our parishes and churches.  …   Yet amazingly, for as often as we are invited to repent, to let go of our past and to embrace the future with hope through the mercy and love of God, embracing the call of John the Baptist is more of a challenge than we might believe.

“Repent!  Accept God’s mercy and forgiveness.  Let go of your past.  Begin your life anew.”  This is the urgent message of John.  These are the words that we’re all called to embrace as we engage the presence of Jesus in our world and in our lives.

Why is it, however, that when we’re encouraged to move forward by the great prophet of Advent – and ultimately by Jesus himself in the gospels – so many of us can’t let go of the past?  I’m not talking about forgetting the good memories of the past or the consoling events and people who’ve encouraged us throughout our life’s journey.  I’m talking about the mistakes, the hurts, the pain and suffering – that we caused or that were imposed upon us.

The 19th century author George Elliot once offered these sage words, “It’s but little good you’ll do watering last year’s crops.”  …  Interesting words, aren’t they?  It makes no sense to water last year’s crops, but we all do, don’t we?

In my life as a priest and bishop, with the blessed opportunities that I’ve been given over the years to offer words of forgiveness and God’s mercy to countless souls, watering last year’s crops is exactly what I’ve witnessed more times than I could ever recall.  We seek to be forgiven – and then we cry over the past.  We water the past with our tears.  We hold on to the past and refuse to let go of what God has long ago forgiven and re-created.  We regret things that we did and should not have done.  We become anxious over things that have occurred and can’t be changed.  …  Sound familiar?  …  And all of these struggles prevent us from being the people God calls us to be!

How do we best move forward and break this cycle of holding on to the past?  There’s a simple prescription for doing so.  …  We recommit ourselves to the task of living our baptism in Jesus.  …  With the grace of God’s mercy and love, we engage the example of Jesus’ life and seek to live less for ourselves, and more for others.

Jesus’ life was filled with pain, disappointment, betrayal, suffering and the effects of the sinful world into which he was born.  Yet, far from harboring resentment toward the broken lives that nailed him to the cross, Jesus handed himself over to his Father’s will.  He trusted in his plan to bring life and salvation where darkness and pain had reigned for too long.

One act of selfless care and compassion for another – more than we might ever realize – has the power to make the brokenness of our past lives recede and to cause us to see the future in a new way filled with hope.  …  “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill and tend to your needs?  Whenever you responded to the needs of the least of your brothers or sisters, you did so for me.”

My friends, I hope you can see just how relevant the message of John the Baptist is to our lives today.  He reminds us – year after year – to let go of the disappointments of the past, to move beyond our mistakes and sin, to serve selflessly and generously, and so to find the living presence of Jesus right here, in our midst.

Sister Teresita, Sister Olive, all of the Passionist Sisters who gather with us today for this closing Mass, along with your and their affiliate members and friends, more than you might realize, this monastery community has a long tradition of living in the spirit of John the Baptist – the prophet of Advent.  It’s quite apparent that your lives are deeply rooted in faith – a faith that was shared with you and that you, in turn, have generously passed on to others by your words, your actions, and especially your prayers.

You carved out a path to this local Church almost 95 years ago at the invitation of the Bishop Hoban, the second bishop of the Diocese of Scranton, settling in Dunmore in June 1926.  Beginning in those earliest of days, you baked altar breads to sustain yourselves and you welcomed retreatants to your monastery, creating a sacred space where their faith would be nourished and their relationship with Jesus would deepen.

45 years after your arrival, your mission had expanded to touch so many lives that you recognized the need to change – to leave the comfort of your first home in this area – and to move to a larger monastery and retreat center – this cherished place that we’ve all known as home in one way or another since 1970.

Now, 50 years later, you, dear Sisters – especially Sister Teresita and Sister Olive – face yet another challenge and the need to once again change.  This time, the change is not precipitated by growth but by diminishment.  And we know that change is never easy.  It brings with it a sadness, doesn’t it?  It forces us to let go of that which is familiar and propels us, to a certain extent, into the unknown.

Yet, in this time of change, Sisters, your mission is needed more than ever:  to contemplate, live and spread the mystery of the Cross.  And the “good news” of today’s Gospel and the heart of the blest mission that you have been called to embrace assures us that your work in preparing the way of the Lord, through the grace of God, will flourish wherever Providence takes you.

Recall that despite the challenges of the world in which he found himself, John the Baptist proclaimed a message of hope to a world waiting to be reborn.  Sisters, in the spirit of this holy season, know that your work is not ending.  To the contrary, your mission, like that of John the Baptist, is to continue to provide hope to all of us who seek new life in Jesus.

Following the request of Bishop Hoban for the establishment of a community of Passionist Sisters in our Diocese 1925, Father Stanislaus Grennan, Provincial of the Passionists, responded to the Bishop:  “These good, contemplative souls will bring great blessings on your Church.”

Sisters, Father Grennan words were providential.  You have been a blessing beyond measure to countless lives that have crossed the threshold of this monastery and to the faithful of the Diocese of Scranton.  We will never be able to sufficiently thank you for all that you have done and been for us through the witness of your prayer and the lived experience of your faith.  While we will miss you, please know that our love and our prayers go with you and bind us together in Jesus, wherever life’s journey leads.

And so, we gather in faith to celebrate the Eucharist and to remember the Passionist Sisters of Saint Gabriel Monastery who have lived their faith in Jesus Christ and the power of his passion as they have served the people of this local Church for 94 years.  May our prayer today around the table of the Lord be one of gratitude and hope:  gratitude for all that has been and hope for what will be.