4 Dec. 2nd Sunday of Advent
Is 40:1-5. Isaiah’s good news is still true for us today: God is coming to save his people and to open up our way into the future.
2 Pt 3:8-14. If the Lord appears to be slow in coming, it is so that people may have more time to repent and so be ready to meet him when he comes.
Mk 1:1-8. John the Baptist appears on the scene to announce the imminent coming of their Saviour and to prepare the people for that great event.
Theme: John the Baptist prepared the way for Christ by raising expectations. Once Jesus had arrived, there only remained for John to disappear gracefully from the scene
In our time, the management of public events has led to an enormous public relations industry. No US president would dare leave the White House without the benefit of their expertise. A mini army travels ahead of him, entrusted with the task of stage-managing his reception at the various stop-overs along the presidential route. They organise reception committees, alert the media, smooth out protocol problems, arrange the control of protesters. If need be, they will even hire a flag-waving crowd. Often it is not so much a matter of “making straight his path” as greasing it.
It is perhaps unjust to place the Baptist in such dubious company but he does share some similarities with these backroom boys. His role, like theirs, was to prepare for an event. Like them too, he sought to ensure a good reception. But there the similarities end. No flag-waving crowd would suffice for John. He demanded nothing less than a change of heart. The party machine proved uncooperative. Like the politicians they were, they resented an unaccredited prophet messing around with their constituents. Both church and state were more than a little unnerved at the prospect of the Messiah arriving just then.
Plus ça change. As Isaiah predicted, this was a voice crying in the wilderness. It was a daunting undertaking but John was equal to it. With enormous moral courage, he castigated the religious hypocrisy of his time. Moral courage exacts a heavy price, then as now. John paid the ultimate price, his life. He gave the lie to those of us who seek to justify our timidity with the plea, “what is one voice against so many?” He is proof, if proof be needed, that individuals create their own world. We are not playthings of history, formed by the times we live in. We cannot wash our hands so glibly of the world’s evils.
Once Christ made his appearance, John’s mission was completed. It was his finest moment. Idolised by the people, his name on every lip, he pointed to a stranger on the fringe of the crowd and said: “This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” With that, he slipped gracefully into oblivion. That moment is beautifully immortalised in the Mass, when the priest raises the host and invites the people to receive Christ.
Like the Baptist, our mission in life is to make way for Christ and then give way to him. And there’s the rub. We do so like to hog the limelight. There is a teenage daughter who refuses to go to Mass anymore because mother never stops on about it. And mothers are by no means the chief offenders. More miracles of grace are bungled by somebody blundering into another’s life at the wrong moment. God does not need our fussiness to implement his will. Like John the Baptist, our role is to point out Christ to others and then leave them free to become acquainted.
Enlightened by Scripture
When the risen Christ had appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and had listened to their tales of woe, he responded with a mild rebuke, “you foolish men, so slow to believe the full message of the prophets. Was it not ordained that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory” (Lk 24:25f). Then starting with Moses, and going through all the prophets, he explained all the passages of scripture that were about himself. In the words of St Thomas Aquinas, whereas God speaks indirectly to us through the works of spiritual writers, he speaks directly to our minds in Sacred Scripture. And if we go back to the Old Testament prophets we find that the collapse of the monarchy in Israel followed by the exile in Babylon, led to an intense awareness of the nature of the special relationship between the Jewish people and God.
They were to be a holy people, a people consecrated to God in a way that distinguished them from all other nations. This new insight was put into writing by one of the greatest – some would go so far as to say, the greatest – of the OT prophets, whose name we do not even know. For want of a better title, he is referred to as Second Isaiah, or Deutero Isaiah, because his writing is to be found in the same scroll as that of the prophet Isaiah who lived almost two centuries earlier. An entire copy of this scroll was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave near Qumran, and is now housed in a special building called the Shrine of the Book, beside the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem.
The message of his man is contained in some of the greatest poetry ever written, a work of great power and beauty, the opening lines of which are given in the first reading today. It begins, “Comfort, Oh comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” So the whole work as far as chapter 55 has been called “The Book of Consolation of Israel.” The author urges the people to have hope, and describes a messenger or look-out on the hills of Jerusalem joyfully gazing down at the returning exiles, in essence a new Exodus greater even than the one led by Moses out of Egypt. The Lord himself, he says, is watching over them, even as a shepherd watches over his flock.
The double mention of a “joyful messenger” who is to proclaim to the people of Judaea, “Here is your God,” is taken up by St Mark in the gospel. Mark associates the messenger with John the Baptist, whom the people of Jerusalem and surroundings went out to see, repenting of their sinful ways. But whereas the Baptist speaks of the tree, that does not bear fruit, being cut down and thrown on the fire, and the chaff being burned in a fire that will never go out, Second Isaiah, on the contrary, is full of sympathy, and refers to God as a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering the lambs into his arms and carrying them in his bosom. According to him, the new kingdom of God is at hand, but the most prominent places in it will be occupied by the poor and lowly, not the powerful ones of this world.
Vocation of the Baptist
John the Baptist could be the central figure in today’s homily. He prepared the way for the people of his time to understand the good news of their salvation. That is the way God normally works; He sends the message of salvation to us through each other. As St Paul once put it, how can people know the truth about God if they have never heard it; and how can they hear if nobody is sent to them?
Jesus found his first disciples among those who were influenced by the preaching of John the Baptist. He had showed them the value of self-control and of prayer; he urged them to listen to the inner voice of God, with repentance and a faithful heart. The high point of John’s short ministry was his meeting with Jesus. Not only did he get to baptise Our Lord but he also helped some of his own followers to go with Jesus and become the first Christian disciples. Through him, Andrew and his brother Peter, and Philip and Nathanael became apostles of Jesus.
Clearly, God wishes us Christians also to help help other people to know and love him. If in the first place, we were more committed to our own Christian calling, we would be more effective in influencing others towards religious commitment. Parents have the first opportunity to point their children towards God. But their words will only be effective when backed up by the actual example of their own faith and prayer.
In all sorts of way, people find themselves in positions that influence others, for good or ill. An obvious case would be those who work in the communications media, press, radio and T.V. But ordinary people outside the media can also influence the views and values of those among whom they work and live. When looked at in light of today’s Gospel, does our way of speaking and behaving help others to share our values, or do we confirm their suspicion that this world is a selfish and cynical place?
And what about fostering vocations to the priesthood and religious life, or to some new forms of church service? The ability of our Church to go on as a visible, organised community continuing in the prayer-life and values of Jesus is under serious question today. But if enough people open their hearts to God’s work, as did John the Baptist and those first disciples, Andrew and Philip and Peter, then a way will be found to keep the world aware of the saving message of Christ.
Asking for Baptism
In today’s gospel John the Baptist helps us prepare for Christmas, as he shows us the mind-set of those who prepare for his coming.
The role of John the Baptist was a humble one. It was not to seek the spotlight, or to bask in the glory. He saw himself as someone who was preparing the way for someone else, someone who could do for the people all the things he himself was unable to do. His role was to prepare their hearts to receive the message and the Messenger that was soon to come. He would prepare the ground for the harvest, but only the Lord could provide the seed, and produce the crop. It is important to know my place before God, because original sin, which is always present, is an attempt to try to play God.
He called for truth. They were to be honest, acknowledge and confess their sins, and then they would receive forgiveness. The ritual of Baptism was an attempt to externalise what was happening in the heart. In preparation for an important visitor, they were to be washed clean, and to have a sense of expectation. It was not a question that they had to be perfect, or to be free from all sin; rather was it a question that they acknowledge their sinfulness, and enter into a receptive mode when the Messiah would arrive to save and redeem them. In a way, it was their novitiate for the spiritual life that was to follow.
Spanning the gospel from beginning to end is this constant reference to the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is always present at all moments of birth in salvation history; from the birth of the world in creation to the Annunciation, to the birth of the church at Pentecost. While John was preparing for the coming of Jesus, so would Jesus make way for the Spirit to complete his work in us. The immersion in the waters of the Jordan was but a symbol of the immersion in the Spirit, where we would be raised up to a higher plain of existence, capable of sharing in the life of the Divinity for all eternity.
First Reading: Book of Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
Second Reading: Second Epistle of St. Peter 3:8-14
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.
Gospel: Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”