December 4, 2016
Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12
“Brothers and sisters, “St. Paul says to the Romans, “whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
Where can we turn for hope in this moment? Where can we find encouragement and the strength to endure? Where we’ve always been able to find it: in the scriptures, and today, in these particular scriptures.
First of all, the gospel tells us, we have to realize that we are not Jesus Christ.
It’s no accident that a lot of crazy people think they are, because deep down we all do. We think we’re special, that the world revolves around us, or should, and what’s so powerful about John the Baptist is that he knows better. He knows that one far more powerful is coming and that all he can do is serve him.
We don’t earn the grace and the light that sometimes come to us. They’re gift. They have nothing to do with our piety or our purity, and it’s a good thing. Deep down in all of us there is darkness and sin, there is pride and grasping, and selfishness, and fear, and until we admit that we can never be free. Only Christ can save us.
This is what John the Baptist knows and what he represents.
So humility, that’s the first thing, and it leads immediately to the next thing: compassion. When we realize our own poverty we become aware of the poverty of others, and their need, and our obligation to this need. “For the Lord shall rescue the poor when they cry out,” as the Psalmist says, “and the afflicted when they have no one to help them”–except that if we’re following Christ, there is someone to help them. Us. You and me. It’s the unassailable logic of the gospels. “Welcome one another,” St. Paul says, “as Christ welcomed you.”
Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche communites, puts it this way. “We all have to discover,” he says, “that there others like us who have gifts and needs; no one of us is the center of the world. We are a small but important part in our universe. We all have a part to play. We need one another.” And so, to go back to Romans, we seek “harmony with one another.” For Paul the battle was between the Jews and the Gentiles, and he’s trying to bring those people together at a level deeper than their differences. So us, in our own time and place. We can’t generalize about others, judge others, demonize others.
The wolf can’t be a guest of the lamb if it keeps acting like a wolf. The leopard can’t lie down with the kid or the lion with the calf if the lion and the leopard keep having the calves and the kids for lunch. This is an ecological vision, a going back to the first chapters of Genesis, when the animals are all given the green plants for food and no one is eating anyone else, and it’s also a social vision. “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain,” the Lord says in Isaiah.
This is no abstraction. It’s no utopia. We can talk about what’s involved here very concretely, as Pope Francis did on All Saints Day this year, at a mass in Malmo Sweden, in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when he proposed six new Beatitudes for us in this new, twenty-first century world:
Blessed are those who remain faithful while enduring evils inflicted on them by others and forgive them from their heart.
Blessed are those who look into the eyes of the abandoned and marginalized and show them their closeness.
Blessed are those who see God in every person and strive to make others also discover him.
Blessed are those who protect and care for our common home.
Blessed are those who renounce their own comfort in order to help others.
Blessed are those who pray for full communion between Christians.
This isn’t soft. This isn’t fuzzy. This has all the clarity of the gospel, and all the challenge. Because it is the gospel.
Think of John the Baptist in his camel hair clothes, in the desert, his food locusts and wild honey, as our Advent booklet encourages us to do this Sunday. He is the figure of detachment, of frugality, someone who purged himself of anything that kept him from God, and so should we, maybe by going through our old clothes and other things this Advent and giving away what we don’t need–giving of our excess to those who don’t have enough.
And the booklet asks us, too, to reflect on what needs to be stripped away within us, what generalizations and stereotypes, what unjustified hatred, what lack of knowledge, what refusal to live with the complexities and the suffering of the way life really is, not just for us, but for others. This can be the focus of our examination of conscience. This can be how we prepare for reconciliation this Advent.
“Love means to learn to look at yourself, /the way one looks at distant things,” the Catholic poet Milosz says, “for you are only one thing among many.”
And third and finally, the readings are telling us today, we need to have the courage and the clarity to stand up against language and actions that are unjust and untrue and immoral, to call out what we know is wrong. John the Baptist doesn’t mince words when he thunders against the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and what he’s thundering against is their treatment of others, their assumption of privilege, their oppression of the poor and the other. We have to do that, too. We have to be alert and watchful, as he was; we have to be brave as he was; we have to be clear as he was.
And since we none of us can do this on our own, without grace, since we none of us are Jesus Christ, we have to pray for his presence and pray for his courage and pray for his fire. We have to keep coming back to the scriptures, because they never counsel us to turn our backs on the poor, never call us to conquest and arrogance and consumption and greed. Never.
But not just the challenge, the encouragement. The scriptures give us hope, too.
Through them we feel not just the Lord’s anger but his tenderness and his gentleness and his fierce, uncompromising love, for in the Lord Jesus Christ tenderness is the fire, gentleness is the sword, love is the call, again and again and again, now and forever.