05Dec 2nd Sunday in Advent

Theme: John the Baptist’s life work was preparing the way for Christ. Once Christ came, it only remained for John to disappear gracefully. Like John, we should make way for Christ in our own life, and then perhaps we can have a more helpful influence on the lives of others.

Is 11:1-10. A sublime Old Testament pointer to Jesus, Messiah and Saviour. The living branch that grows from Jesse’s stump is our sure hope of peace in this life and salvation in the next.

Rom 15:4-9. Far from being outdated, the Old Testament still has much to teach us, says St. Paul, so that we may live in harmony and gain our share in what God promised to the patriarchs of old.

Mt 3:1-12. Only when recognizing our sins can we properly hear God’s message. The spirit of repentance that was lived and proclaimed by John the Baptist, is still the best preparation for a meeting with Jesus Christ.

First Reading: Book of Isaiah 11:1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,

and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,

the spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the spirit of counsel and might,

the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide by what his ears hear;

but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples;

the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Resp. Psalm: Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17

Give the king your justice, O God,

and your righteousness to a king’s son.

May he judge your people with righteousness,

and your poor with justice.

In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound,

until the moon is no more.

May he have dominion from sea to sea,

and from the River to the ends of the earth.

For he delivers the needy when they call,

the poor and those who have no helper.

He has pity on the weak and the needy,

and saves the lives of the needy.

May his name endure forever,

his fame continue as long as the sun.

May all nations be blessed in him;

may they pronounce him happy.

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-9

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name.”

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 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. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The Jericho Road

(by John Walsh)

If you go east on the road from Jerusalem down to Jericho, that road where the man, rescued by the Good Samaritan, fell among robbers, you would end up beside the Dead Sea, in one of the deepest areas on this earth open to the skies, more than 1,200 feet under the level of the sea. It was in this region, in the days of our Lord, that a devout community dwelt on the cliff-tops overlooking the Dead Sea, people who regarded the rest of the Jews as being so wicked that they withdrew into this barren region to keep themselves uncontaminated. These were the Essenes, oddly enough never mentioned in the New Testament, an extraordinary group of men and women, who prayed daily together and meditated on the ancient Hebrew Bible, of which they made numerous copies, some of which survive as the Dead Sea Scrolls. They purified themselves regularly in ritual washings, and most of them practised celibacy, relying on a steady influx of recruits for their continued existence. In a perpetual struggle to survive in the sweltering heat of this wilderness, and sustained by the belief that the end-time was at hand, they lived apart from the world. They did not try to change it.

In today’s gospel we have the story of the man whom many scripture scholars would link with the Essene community – John the Baptist. He too had been living in this wilderness up till now, eating the only food available there, namely locusts and wild honey, and also attaching great importance to ritual washing, so much so that we always refer to him now as the Baptist. But John, in contrast to the Essenes, was not satisfied just to remain apart from the world. He set out to convert the world, and not because the end of the world was near, but rather the beginning. “The kingdom of God is close at hand,” he said, and the challenge he put to the crowds which flocked to hear him, down in the Jordan valley, can be summarised in one sentence: “Change your lives” – “Repent.”

This also was to be the message of Jesus when he began his public mission, “The time has come and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the Good News.” It is a call addressed to us as well. The changing of our lives is a life-long process, but it must begin here and now, and the call to do so comes to all without exception. We ask why did John make such a bitter attack on the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to be baptised, by addressing them as a “brood of vipers.” It was simply because the Pharisees, deeming themselves perfect, saw no need for change, while for the Sadducees, who did not believe in a life hereafter, change was pointless, because their hopes did not extend beyond the present life, seeing no possibility of life after death.

The fact that these people nevertheless came to listen to John shows that they felt something lacking in their approach to life, and that in spite of themselves they were drawn to this charismatic, ascetic figure calling them to repentance. “He shall drink no wine or strong drink,” the angel said of John to his father Zechariah. For some of us there is perhaps a lesson here too.

In this period leading up to Christmas, it is well to recall that in the Bible drunkenness is condemned, because it makes people forgetful of what they are, and of their duty to be true to themselves. “Woe to those,” Isaiah wrote (5:11), “who from early morning chase after strong drink, and stay up late at night getting drunk.” In this area human nature does not change. St Paul, convinced from the moment of his conversion that every true Christian gives witness to the mystery of the cross, puts it forcibly for us, “You cannot belong to Christ, unless you crucify all self-indulgent passions and desires” (Gal 5:24). John the Baptist, a stern and uncompromising figure, threatened his listeners with hell-fire, if they did not mend their ways.

Jesus too was firm. “Go and sin no more” was his frequent warning, but the firmness of Jesus was coupled with a marvellous understanding and compassion for those caught up in the snares of sin. And this it is which makes us confident that, in spite of all the moral turmoil within us, our lack of commitment to the following of the gospel message of Christ, and the evils of our time, the love of God will finally prevail.

Fruits of Repentance

(by Patrick Rogers)

1. Fruit-trees:

It is unfortunate that mass-produced frozen foods (plus shortage of garden-space) discourages many people from growing their own vegetables, though there may be some reversal of this trend, to avoid taking in too much genetically modified produce. Planting seeds, and watching them grow with the help of rain and sunshine, can help us understand better the biblical imagery. God is the almighty gardener, and we are the fruit-trees he has planted.

2. Good or Bad?

A sound and healthy tree will grow good fruit; but some apple-trees grow wild and sour, producing only bitter crab-applies, good for little. John the Baptist warned people of his day, and the warning still holds good for today, that the axe will be laid to the root of the trees: each of us must face our personal death and judgement. The useless tree, bearing either bad fruit, or none at all, will be thrown in the fire; the good tree, presumably, has a higher future, like being used in building a fine house. In the other picture of judgement painted by the Baptist, Christ will separate the wheat from the chaff, storing the grain, but burning the rubbish on the dump-heap.

3. What sort of fruit?

What does God want from us? Which kind of behaviour will be to our credit on the day of judgment? We know the answer, in theory: we could reel off the list of “Fruits of the Spirit” – charity, joy, peace, patience, chastity, honesty, self-control. But theory and practise are often divided by a long distance. Are we actually making an honest effort to produce this good behaviour in our personal life? An elderly bishop used to sum up the problem of good works in this way: “We know the right thing, no doubt; but we don’t DO it.” Or St. Paul: “I do not achieve the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. In my inmost self, I delight in the law of God, but I see in my members another law, at war with the law of my mind” (Rom. 7.) Each of us has a struggle to wage within ourselves, in order to remain faithful to Christ, and bear good fruit.

4. With God’s Help

Another side to the question: our conversion to better things does not depend on ourselves alone, thank God. The energy and force to succeed comes from Him, through Jesus, the living branch, the Saviour. As the prophet Isaiah foretold, Our Lord is full of the Holy Spirit, to spread peace, joy and holiness among his followers. He shares that Holy Spirit with us, if we only ask him, trust him, believe in him. In the words of today’s Gospel, he will baptise us with the Spirit, and with fire; he can put new life into our efforts, and above all give us the power to really love. Like the sap of life that flows through the vine-stalk and into each branch, no matter how small.

5. Improving our Yield

Are we willing to do what is needed, to improve our yield of goodness in God’s sight? To prune away useless leaves (too proud /greedy /fond of alcohol etc.), and remain closely united to the true vine, Christ? To bear the good fruit expected of us, this is the real success that makes life worthwhile; it is the best way to the happiness God has in store for us (“upon my holy mountain.”) “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you so to live in harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,” that together we may all be saved on the day of judgement.

The greatness of the Baptist

(by Anthony O’Leary)

Today offers us an opportunity to highlight one of the great figures of the Advent liturgy, John the Baptist. Various aspects of his character and message could be developed particularly that of repentance that leads to reconciliation. Varying lights on repentance are available in the Gospel. Firstly there is the self denial that is essential to penance. The life style of the Baptist demonstrates this. Secondly one could look at the need to change our attitudes that is shown by John’s warning to the Jewish leaders, They presumed on their privileges as being children of Abraham. John challenges them to consider the power of God to raise up children from the very stones. Our own attitudes can be biased without our being really aware of our way of looking at life and so we are asked to examine our viewpoint. Thirdly there is the exception of the one who is to come. Repentance is an opening up to the Person of Jesus and a renewal of our relationship with him. So there is a reconciliation involved. This reconciliation can extend outwards to others and even in to our attitudes to material things. The reading from Isaiah shows this aspect on a cosmic scale when harmony is effected by the Spirit-filled king who will judge for the poor and bring in an era of great world peace. Paul exhorts the Christian to live in hope of this broad vision by being at one with his neighbour to the glory of God the Father, So the cosmic vision of Isaiah and the everyday life of the Christian are intertwined in the process of peace and reconciliation. We could take up any one of these aspects of repentance and flesh them out with examples from our own situation.

Another possible theme that flows from the readings is the abundance of God’s goodness. The beautiful images of the Isaiah passage point to the great hope that the prophet had in the Gift of God, the Holy Spirit, a gift that is given to the poor. The attitude of God demonstrated by Paul in the Romans extract underlines this same openness of God to all people and his readiness to take all in to friendship with himself. John’s preaching shows that the Jewish people do not hold an exclusive place in relationship to God This attitude of generosity on God’s part gives a basis for the Advent world of expectation. We wait trustingly for a God whom we know will come with gifts in abundance. Our hope is founded on what we know of him from his coming in the past in the life of Jesus our Lord.

Man for All Seasons

(by Liam Swords)

The first two years of my education took place in a mixed school. At four years of age, it was not considered a threat to my morals. Besides it was a convent school. There was a large picture in the infant classroom which I can still recall vividly. It showed a teenage boy with long hair, bare arms and legs, draped in a knee-length tunic, with a belt round his waist. He held a staff in his hand. It was John the Baptist. He became my hero immediately. He was the stuff a young boy’s fantasies are made of. As I grew older, I should have grown out of John the Baptist as I did out of Santa Claus but I didn’t. The older I became, the more I learned about him, and the more I liked him. He was my man “for all seasons.”

To start with, he was a “voice crying in the wilderness.” The type of person every age needs and none more than our own. Somebody prepared to speak out. Willing to take on the system, the powers-that-be. People who have the courage of their convictions, who dare to confront low standards in high places. Who do “not judge by appearances” but give “their verdict for the poor of the land.” Isaiah knew the type; he was one himself:

His word is a rod that strikes the ruthless,/ his sentences bring death to the wicked. (Ps 2)

They are few and far between. But mercifully every age produces all too rare examples. Somebody who can articulate for the silent majority, for the rest of us, who lack the courage to speak out. And we turn out in our thousands to applaud them from the safety of our anonymity. “Then all Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him.” We can always melt away when the tear-gas and the baton-charges start. All of- them pay a price for their outspokenness, and some of them, the ultimate price. It was long years imprisonment for Alexandra Solzhenitsyn and Nelson Mandela. It was the assassin’s bullet for Martin Luther King. It was both for John the Baptist. And it was not surprising. Anyone foothardy enough to describe the religious establishment of his time as a “brood of vipers” was certain to become a marked man. He didn’t mince his words. And when he pointed a finger at the sexual scandals of the government in the person of Herod, he was a condemned man.

What makes John the Baptist unique, is that all the fame or notoriety he achieved was not for himself but for another. “The one who follows me is more powerful than I am and I am not fit to carry his sandals.” His was no ego-trip, which is a charge that could be laid at the feet of all those others who challenged the system, no matter how admirable their causes were. History has no other example of people who achieve that sort of adulation, yielding centre-stage to another as yet unknown. That extraordinary moment has been immortalised in the Mass, fittingly just before Communion, when the priest lifts up the Host and says “Behold the Lamb of God.” These were the words the Baptist first pronounced when he spotted the unknown Jesus standing at the fringe of a crowd who had come to hear John preach. His job was to prepare the way for Christ and then make way for him.

He is a model for any Christian and for all Christians. For parents for their children, husbands for their wives, and wives for their husbands. Teachers for their pupils, priests for their people, neighbours for their neighbours. Christians should lead others to Christ. And sometimes this may entail taking themselves out of the way. Interference in others” lives, even with the best of intentions, rarely if ever discovers Christ for them. The reverse is more often the case. How many young people have drifted away from the Mass because of the constant harassment of their parents. Such parents could take a leaf out of the Baptist’s book. Preachers like them and like me rarely influence people. We can’t see past our egos to Christ. Those like John the Baptist never fail.

Using the Time

(by Jack McArdle)

John the Baptist, back then, was a figure of the role of the church today. With all our many preparations for Christmas, we must give priority to preparing our hearts. Jesus didn’t come to be locked in a tabernacle. He came to make his home in the human heart. As with last Sunday, there is an urgency about the call to prepare the way. Not everything is important, just because it feels urgent. I can be so busy with the urgent that I overlook the important. The call of today’s gospel is both urgent and important. John predicts an outpouring of blessing from “the one who is coming.” Our preparation for Christmas is but the beginning of blessings that will continue for eternity.

One of my earliest memories, growing up in the country, was the coming of electricity. It was awaited with great excitement, and each day the postman kept us up-to-date on “where they are now,” as the poles to hold the wires were erected down the side of the road. Finally, the great day arrived. We had electricity. Gone was the old wireless, with its wet and dry battery; gone was the tilley lamp in the kitchen, and the hurricane lamp in the farmyard.

With all the excitement, I noticed something that really baffled me. An elderly couple living nearby had not applied for the electricity. At first I failed to grasp the simple fact that they were free to make that decision if they chose to do so. The wires passed them by, within a few yards of their front door; yet they decided to remain as they were, with their tilley lamp and their hurricane lamp, and without the facilities for common comforts that all their neighbours now enjoyed. It has taken me years to understand and to apply the message of that simple incident

God does not give me anything, but he offers me everything. He offers me peace, but I’m completely free to live in misery, and die of ulcers, if I so choose. He is constantly reminding me, offering me, calling me, inviting me. This Christmas is yet another opportunity to listen to his message, and to respond afresh. I cannot live today on a yes of yesterday.

When I was a child I knelt in front of the crib in the local church, with a sense of awe. The whole thing seemed so real back then. What has changed? “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and always.” I have changed, of course, which is what is supposed to happen, as my life unfolds. That sense of awe of my childhood should now be much more widespread. It should encompass life itself, the sacrament of the present moment, and my own personal vocation to accept the message of Christmas, and integrate it into my daily living. The inner child of yester-year is still there, and the ability to experience a sense of awe is always possible to recapture.

Life is what happens when you’re making other plans. If you want to hear God laugh, just tell him your plans. Here’s another Christmas, where it can be “here we go again,” or it can be something beautiful, special, and life giving.

Response: Don’t just drift into Christmas, and don’t allow it become a time of year which most people wish was over and done with. Take some definite time out, not a great deal, to reflect on what life is all about. Prepare a pathway for the Lord’s coming. Make a straight road for him. Can you honestly recognise things in your life, in your behaviour, in your relationships, that can be obstacles to this time of love, of reconciliation, of freedom from bondage? What do you find within yourself that spoils or limits the gift that you are, now that we are approaching that time of year when gift giving becomes part of our living?