Sunday, December 5, 2010

On Jordan's Bank

Every year at this time, with the harsh Judean desert as his dramatic backdrop, John the Baptist returns to center stage each Advent, as we hear him shouting up and down the Jordan Valley, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”

For us today, John seems a somewhat mysterious, elusive, and probably not very attractive figure. He appears, ever so briefly, at the beginning of Jesus’ public life. Then, before we have barely gotten to know him, he’s gone. From the little we do know, however, he comes across as the sort of person who may be much admired, but preferably from a safe distance – and after he is safely dead. So having heard his rather shrill shouting every 2nd Sunday of Advent, we are ready right away to put him back in storage, so to speak, while we focus instead on the more charming sounds of the holiday season. This is the season to be jolly, after all. And no one ever called John “jolly”!

We, of course, expect our celebrities to be good-looking and to wear the right kind of clothes. I suspect that most of us, were he to be transported into our time, might be tempted to treat him like any other odd-looking character, standing on the street haranguing us about the end of the world or whatever. Most likely, we would ignore him. Matthew, however, says that at that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.

Even the religious professionals, the Pharisees and Sadducees, took an interest – although all they got in return was to be denounced as a brood of vipers. Poor Pharisees and Sadducees! As the old saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished!
I really wonder how effective John’s approach was with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Like them, most of us respond better to positive reinforcement. Most of us would probably shy away from John’s message. Most of us, in fact, prefer our religion to be as predictable and comfortable as possible. John, however, had a whole other agenda, which is why we hear him in Advent. In a sense, John’s entire life was like one long Advent!

Of course, it’s easy for Advent to pass us by, overshadowed as it is by all the activity connected with Christmas. Overshadowed or not, however, Advent is a very special season, Christianity is, after all, a very historical religion, that takes time very seriously. We believe that time has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning, of course, was creation. The middle, not necessarily mathematically, but religiously the center of all history was when God became personally a part of human history in Jesus. Everything since then, however long, constitutes the last phase of human history – everything since Jesus’ return to his Father and his gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church to continue his presence and action in the world.
We don’t know how long this final phase of history will last. The point is not pinpointing the date of Christ’s 2nd coming (as many have tried to do and many would like us to be able to do), but rather what happens in this interval between Christ’s 1st coming at Christmas and his final coming for which we wait – as we say every day at Mass – in joyful hope. What we do in this interval between Christmas and the end is what living a Christian life ultimately comes down to. So each one of our lives, like the life of John the Baptist, has to be thought of as in a sense one long Advent.
John told those Pharisees and Sadducees: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” In other words, make good use of this time that we have been given. Advent is about re-examining our lives and allowing God to reshape us. It’s a process we dare not avoid, lest we get stuck in the same rut as the Pharisees and Sadducees.
God is still very much at work in our world. His great plan for the world – and for each one of us – is still enfolding. So John the Baptist appears on the scene very Advent to tell us it’s time to get on board, to re-examine our lives, and so be ready to participate in the glorious new world which God has already begun building.
Homily for 2nd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 5, 2010.

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