We draw near to the end of another Advent. What was our Advent journey supposed to be about? These days are meant to foster a spirit of pregnant longing for and eager expectation of God’s definitive action among human kind. Perhaps because we are living in difficult times, people will not allow themselves to enter into the darkness so that they can yearn for the light. Hopelessness enmeshes. Once we become entangled in it, standing on the brink of despair, it is difficult to look up and believe that there is reason to hope. When wars rage and death counts are tolled, how do we believe there will be peace? Is it any wonder that Ahaz dared not ask God for a sign even though God longed to give that sign and comfort him with a reminder of God’s love and fidelity? The enemy surrounded Ahaz and threatened his kingdom. That was the reality for him. What could God possibly do to alter that?
On the other side of that coin, so to speak, have you noticed that in our times many people are attuned to expecting instant gratification? Why should material satisfaction be put off when you can have it now? People don’t diet and exercise to maintain physical fitness; they have liposuction and plastic surgery to give the illusion of fitness. There was a time when young couples began their married life in a rental house as they looked forward to the time when they could make a down payment on a starter home. Today those starter homes have a three-car garage and a swimming pool. At least that is true for some that the desperate ones read about. Should we be surprised that by and large people do not have the emotional energy for Advent? Living in hope doesn’t resonate with them. I want it and I want it now!
So, instead of starkness and the four-week experience of darkness looking forward to a great dawn with light’s return, well before the Advent Season even begins, the signs of Christmas, its lights and carols, are everywhere. Not that many years ago, people waited for Thanksgiving Day before the lights went up and the carols began. Now we’re lucky if Halloween is over before all that begins. Is it any wonder that by the time Christmas Day arrives all the trappings and trimmings look tired. Everyone is sick of hearing about dreaming of a white Christmas. Who in the world could stand The Twelve Days of Christmas? On the second day of Christmas not a sign of the feast remains.
I can remember when Christmas began in our home the way it did in church – on Christmas morning. Sometime during the night, after my siblings and I were in bed, a tree was put up and decorated and wrapped presents were placed beneath it. We came down the stairs rubbing sleep from our eyes to be dazzled by the lights, the presents, and the fire on the hearth. We were told that each gift was a reminder of God’s great gift of Love who was born this day. We knew right from the start that this celebration was all about the Lord and the peace and love Christ brings.
We need to experience Advent’s darkness rather than fear it. We can benefit from entering silence, not dreading it. How else will we know Advent’s longing and Advent’s hope? In the darkness and silence our defenses are down. The events of our days can enter our consciousness and we can contemplate them. We can look at the horror of war and be confronted by the bodies and hear the wailing of those who mourn and enter their suffering the way Christ does. With our defenses down we might see those classes of people that otherwise we might be tempted to ignore – the poor and disenfranchised, the people of other races than ours, those of a different gender from ours, and of different orientations, and have to admit that we are all family, God’s family.
We would have to ponder the telling of the statistics – the millions worldwide dying from AIDS, the unconscionable portion of the world’s goods consumed by a small number of people living in first world countries in comparison with the world’s impoverished population. We would have to wonder about the exploitation of the Earth and its resources for profit’s sake, the percentage of the goods we buy that are produced by what is tantamount to slave labor, again for profits sake. On and on we could go. We stand in the midst of cacophonous din that seeks to lure us and prevent us from noticing.
Advent is meant to be a time for silence. In the silence we can come to understand that the horrors in each day’s news are, in the reality that faith brings, aspects of Christ’s passion. If we allow ourselves to be brought to the foot of the cross, dare we ask ourselves about our participation in the crucifixion? But that is the stuff of conversion. Christmas celebrates Incarnation – God’s taking on human flesh, sealing the union between God and humans forever. It is the celebration of God’s love for human kind and the invitation to all to live in love and hope. Remember. The Gospel does not end in death. Neither will our story. As horrible as the contemporary story might be, the vision that dawns with Christmas is not overcome by the evil. Love conquers. God is faithful and will raise us up.
The messages to the universal church emanating from Pope Francis, his calls to conversion, thrill many. He wants to see a poorer church ministering to the poor. He wants the dignity of the poor upheld. He is speaking out against unbridled capitalism and its so-called trickle down theory even as he calls for an equitable distribution of the world’s goods. Many thrill at his messages and see hope for the church’s conversion and the return of many Catholics that have left the fold for various reasons, chief among them the hollowness of the preaching. Others decry this pope. Some of the wealthy denounce him and his message as Communism, Marxism. Obviously they don’t recognize the diagram for such socialism in the Acts of the Apostles.
The bishops and priests must hear Pope Francis’s challenge to get rid of their refinery, live a poorer lifestyle, and be among the people, getting to know how they smell, getting their shoes dirty as they walk among the poor. The Church is to stand as a beacon of mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation. For many those are not the first things that come to mind as they consider the Church. The ordained must hear the ecstatic voice of the severely disfigured man who before thousands was embraced by the pope during a papal audience. He wept as he declared that the pope was the only other person besides his mother who had ever said, “I love you,” to him. Can they imagine themselves acting in similar fashion?
Ahaz was challenged to ask for a sign that would give him reason not to yield to despair. He couldn’t find the courage to ask. But the sign was given anyway – a child born would be called Immanuel – God with us. In Christmas we recognize that sign, God with us, in the Child born in Bethlehem. If we listen in the night we just might hear Christ’s challenge to be that sign, God with us, today and so help the human family recognize its connectedness and together live in hope because of the love that surrounds us.
The story doesn’t end in defeat. It can’t. God won’t let it. That’s the Good News Christ proclaimed in being born among us.
From this Sunday’s Gospel reading it would be reasonable to conclude that, or, at least to wonder if John the Baptist was disappointed in Jesus. John seems to have had expectations of a different kind of Messiah from the one emerging from Jesus. Given his temperament and the rage that churned beneath the surface, one could conclude that John expected strong actions from Jesus with dramatic results. In last Sunday’s Gospel, John voiced his confidence that the one coming after him, the one whose sandals he was not worthy to carry, would set things right in a winnowing action that would separate wheat from chaff. The wheat would be gathered into barns. The chaff would burn with unquenchable fire. The imagery is fine for harvest time, but when wheat and chaff are in actuality classes of people, it seems clear that John’s eagerly awaited scene will be terrifying.
John gave his all in response to his vocation to be the messenger going ahead of Jesus to prepare the way before him. He was confident that his vocation came from God. With that in mind, he had every right to expect that he would live to see the realization of the Kingdom of heaven in the coming wrath. Those expectations would rise out of the image of Messiah gleaned from Hebrew Scriptures. When the emerging reality didn’t seem to agree with his expectations for the Messiah, unless he had no ego at all, he must have suffered a temptation to claim for himself the crowds that came out to hear him. Many thought John was the Messiah. They would have accepted him as such. It could have been increasingly difficult for him to say I am not the Messiah as his charisma drew more and more to gather around him, listen to his message, and then submit to his Baptism. That temptation could grow as more and more that Jesus did did not conform to John’s expectation. Where was the wind? When would the winnowing begin? When would he witness the humiliation of those not following God’s Law as he thought they should – the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Romans? Did John grind his teeth as he heard that Jesus was being denounced because he welcomed sinners and ate with them?
When John, from prison, sent his disciples to ask Jesus, Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another? was he hoping for a clear declaration in the affirmative from Jesus with word of accompanying signs to confirm Jesus’ Messiahship, signs similar to those he longed for? In stead, Jesus talked about the poor having the Good News proclaimed to them. Jesus, through the emissaries, pled with John not to be scandalized by him and his works.
It has often been said that when John’s disciples returned to him with Jesus’ message that John was relieved. He could then go calmly to his own beheading. But I wonder. Faith walks often do not have that crystal clarity that one would like. Darkness sometimes doesn’t lift. John’s greatness would not be diminished if he had to go to his death hoping against hope.
Jesus did herald John’s greatness, but immediately he added that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Was that because as John stretched his neck over the block he was still hoping that the breeze would stir and the winnowing would begin? Or, was Jesus in a veiled manner, proclaiming John’s real greatness?
Prepare, Ye, the way of the Lord! Those words make up a major theme of the Advent Season. That is what John the Baptist did. The task isn’t over yet. Jesus expects the People of God, the Church, to continue to labor in that arena making everything we do part of the preparing.
In actuality, looking back on the history of the Church, there is ample evidence that from age to age the kind of preparing that occurred was closer to John’s way of thinking that Jesus’. How many people went to the stake because they belonged to a different tradition? The Crusades were fought to rescue to holy places from the infidels and many of them were put to the sword in that process. There has been no shortage of attempts to force people into faith compelling them by torture and the sword. Were those so afflicted supposed to recognize in their tortures the vengeful God John longed to see?
I wonder if today Pope Francis is not urging us to try a way that is more reflective of Jesus’ own. Prepare, Ye, the way of the Lord! The Gospel asks us to do what Jesus did and not to count the cost. Some would still have lines of demarcation drawn. Some want the splendor of the Church to be her attraction. Some want the sinner to be publically condemned and denied access to the Table.
There is a gentler voice urging us to love and to imitate Jesus in humble service. In the imagery of Pope Francis, a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. If we take on that task and become humble servants, will we not be living in the Kingdom of Heaven? Won’t God’s reign be more obvious? Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them. If we dare to imitate Jesus, we have to do the same. Jesus told John’s disciples to report to him what they had seen and heard: the blind regain their sight; the lame walk; lepers are cleansed; the deaf hear; the dead are raised; and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. When the baptized exercise their priesthood in ministry to the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf and the dead – to those in society who are insignificant and those outcast, seemingly without hope, isn’t it then that the Kingdom dawns? Those who are touched, embraced, and lifted up will know Jesus in that encounter and know that they are loved by the God who sent him.
That ministry cannot have strings attached. It cannot be a conditional ministry exercised only on those who meet a criterion others set. Jesus calls us to a ministry that is unconditional and universal and therefore reflective of the way God loves. As a result some will be drawn to the Catholic Christian way. They will gather around the Table and celebrate Eucharist, united in Jesus and giving thanks to God who touched them. Sharing the meal that is Christ’s Body and Blood they will become more and more what they eat and drink and so be more able to go out and continue doing what Jesus does.
Others will walk different paths to the same God following other traditions that speak clearly to them of God’s call. Jesus did not want that to be a cause of consternation. Rather, we are to rejoice and find new ways of relating with all these sisters and brothers who, via whatever path they trod, are on the way to the Kingdom.
John the Baptist may have been disappointed that Jesus’ Messiahship was different from what he expected. Peter, James, and John will suffer through the same disappointment before their conversion in light of the Resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit. Our prayer in this age must be that we have the grace to rejoice that we have been called to do it Christ’s way. May the Spirit compel us to proclaim the dignity and worth of the poor as the Church exercises a fundamental option for the poor. May the Spirit help us to proclaim the dignity of all people of every gender, orientation, race, and creed. Then we will be preparers of the way of the Lord.
What are we supposed to be doing during this Advent Season? Some would have us think that the season is about getting into the mindset of a pregnancy. The romantics would have us looking forward with eager longing for the birth of a child, albeit, the Christ child. That’s strange, isn’t it, when you think about it. We know the story. We are looking back to an event that happened some 2000 years ago. We know who was born then and have some familiarity with the life-story as it is related in the four Gospels. Advent isn’t about awaiting the birth of a child. We celebrate the anniversary of the birth. What the season is really about is the preparation for the One who was born to have full impact on our lives, and to see the birth of the Kingdom he brings.
John the Baptist dominates the Gospel readings of Advent. Have you ever wondered how he could have been such a mega-star in today’s parlance? He seems to have had a huge following. All classes of people went out in droves to hear him the way throngs gather today to listen to rock stars or to catch a glimpse of screen idols. What was the attraction? Can you imagine yourself trekking out to some desert land to hear someone who seems to have one thing on his mind, the berating of his audience? That’s what it seems he is about. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
The crowds gathered to hear John’s message of hope. His words touched the longing in the hearts of those who listened. Many of those assembled were poor. The number of people living in desperation in those days should resonate with us, mindful as we should be, of the countless numbers living in poverty in our days. But the poor were not the only ones who had emptiness and a longing to have the emptiness filled. The intellectual and religious leaders listened to John and so did some of those in power. They might not have liked what they heard. Many winced when his words struck home. Even so, many came out to hear him over and over again. How many times did Herod ride out to hear John and wonder if he could ever accept the message? And if the message made no sense, why go out for a repeat? If they did take it to heart, how would they ever be the same again? After all, he called the hearers to a conversion of life.
Again, to use our parlance, we might say that John called a spade a spade. He used words like hypocrites and brood of vipers in an attempt to wake up a group of people whose actions and way of life did not correspond to what some of them were teaching, to the life they were demanding others life. John wanted the people to be in fact what they purported to be, teachers and observers of the Law. If they did that they might be more compassionate toward those they called to task.
The Baptist’s call is to repentance. Some, today, might cringe at the word because they link it to the right-winged Christian Fundamentalists, the kind who would declare the devastating typhoon in the Philippines, or the earthquake in Haiti, of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, to be punishments sent from God on a people deemed to be sinners. They would use such events to warn the rest of the world so they won’t have to experience God’s wrath, should God yield to righteous anger.
I don’t think that is what John the Baptist was about, the making of threats, nor should that be the message of Advent.
Prepare, ye, the way of the Lord! Many Advent Liturgies will begin with that verse sung as the Presider and Liturgical Ministers process into the sanctuary. That’s a seven-word phrase that can be summed up in one: Repent! Repentance is about changing lives. Remember what the minister says to you on Ash Wednesday as s/he traces the ashes on your forehead? Turn away from sin and believe the Good News. Repent and believe. Those words usher us into the season of Lent. John draws us into the spirit of Advent by urging us to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Those words will resonate and be attractive only if we want to see what is promised happen, if we are willing to pay the price. Do we want to see the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven? Is that the longing in our hearts?
If we long for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, we long to live Christ’s life. Jesus is the One in whom God reigns completely. Jesus’ will and the Father’s are one. If we are serious about living this Advent season, then we are saying that we want Christ to reign in our hearts so that our wills and God’s will will be one. We are praying for the grace to live the Gospel. What would this Christmas be like if all the baptized suddenly did that?
I believe that that is the message from Pope Francis that resonates in many, many hearts. He’s calling for repentance when he seeks a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.
Sit with the astounding words from Isaiah that we hear in the First Reading this Sunday. We believe that the Prophet is speaking about the coming of Christ into the World and how the World will be transformed when he does. Christ is part of the Hebrew tradition, a sprout from the stump of Jesse. David is an ancestor of Jesus’. Jesus comes to make all things right, to restore the order in creation that sin destroyed. In that right ordering the poor and the afflicted will be treated with dignity and justice. The despots will be powerless. All the hostilities that divide people will be transformed into compassion and natural enemies will live in fraternity and peace. Even Jews and Gentiles will come together to the Mountain of the Lord. And the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord. It sounds like the dawning of the Messianic Age. Imagine that. Take it to heart. What if it were to happen this Christmas!
There are those who cannot accept Jesus as Lord because that promised age that he announced does not seem to have dawned with his coming. Has it?
Of course there is the individual response, yours, mine, for us to consider. What in me has to change before my heart is ready for Christ’s reign? Of what must I repent? Is it obvious that I love others the way Christ loves me? Or do I harbor resentments and dehumanize those who offend me? Am I about forgiving, or do I seek vengeance? What do I see when I look into the eyes of an impoverished person? Do I see the face of Christ the way the pope’s namesake did? Who are the ones I condemn and deem unlovable even by God? I begin to see what repentance means for me. Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God.
The Church is the Body of Christ, the People of God. This Advent, the Church must listen to the Baptist’s challenge. When those outside the Church think of the Church do they witness the impact of a people seeking to reconcile and bring peace? Are they in awe of a people who give primacy of place to the poor, the disenfranchised, the disabled and the aged? Do they see a people who long to serve and not to be served? Or, when they look on, how easy is it for them to conclude that they would never be welcome in the Assembly? Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!
On this Second Sunday of Advent we will assemble to sit under the Word to be challenged by it. We will stand around the Table to celebrate Eucharist and be transformed by the celebration. Who will be welcome to gather with us? Is there anyone whose presence would scandalize (me) and cause (me) to flee in disgust? Until all are welcome the Eucharist won’t be what Christ had in mind when he said, take this all of you and eat. This is my body. Take this all of you and drink. This is my blood. All of you, do this in my memory.
We still have some days of Advent in which to repent. We can hope in the One who will come with the Holy Spirit and fire to tame the save beasts and empower the wolf and the lamb, the calf and the young lion, even the child and the adder to be at peace in each other’s company.
Maybe this time my heart will be ready. And the Church’s, too.