Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Voice from the Desert

This past Thursday, the Church celebrated one of its most popular saints, Saint Nicholas, the 4th-century Greek Bishop of Myra (in what is today Turkey). Nicholas lived from 270 to 343 and became known and celebrated for his generosity. In some parts of Europe, Saint Nicholas still comes to bring gifts on the eve of his feast day – as, 37 years ago, he did for us novices at the Paulist Novitiate in Oak Ridge, NJ. Nowadays, in much of the United States, Santa Claus has already arrived in a multitude of Thanksgiving and Christmas parades, but we must still wait patiently another few weeks for his presents.

Of course, Santa Claus isn’t the only figure whose annual appearance heralds the coming of Christmas. As she always does on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, the Church introduces us to the mysterious figure of John the Baptist, who comes out of the desert each Advent proclaiming: “Prepare the way of the Lord” [Luke 3:4; Isaiah 40:3].

John the Baptist is a very mysterious figure, appearing briefly at the beginning of Jesus’ public life, then quickly getting himself arrested and executed. All four Gospels mention John in connection with the beginning of Jesus’ public life, but Luke’s Gospel goes further and links John and Jesus not only as adults but at the beginning of their lives as infants. As the future founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker, wrote in his Diary eight months after he had become a Catholic [April 2, 1845]: “We have much to learn before we know all that union with God means … Alas how few live solely for God – Mary – John the Baptist – these from their birth were consecrated to his work alone.” Hecker echoed the emphasis in Luke’s story of John’s consecration as priest and prophet from Day 1 - how John was by birth a Jewish priest, summing up and fulfilling all that the Old Testament was about, and a prophet, going before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare a people fit for the Lord [Luke 1:17; Malachi 3:23-24].

But how to prepare a people fit for the Lord? How do we prepare for the Lord?

John’s message may be timeless, but Luke the Gospel writer went to great length to pinpoint precisely when in historical time John made his first public appearance. What one notices immediately is the special solemnity of the story's language - the style of an official imperial proclamation, complete with the names of the reigning emperor and his representatives. That's Luke the historian, telling us who, what, when, and where - situating John's message in the larger sweep of human history.

All of this suggests that, however out-of-the-way the Jordan Valley may seem to us (despite its regular prominence in the news of the world), the real stage on which John's solemn pronouncement is being proclaimed is not some far-off desert oasis but at the very center of society - symbolized in the Gospel by that list of names of the emperor and his representatives. While the message itself may indeed be timeless, God’s grace and mercy come to us in real time, in the specific circumstances in which we happen to find ourselves. That was what the Prophet Baruch was explaining to the people in the sad and troubled time that followed the Temple’s destruction and Israel’s exile to Babylon. Baruch invited the people to put aside their mourning and contemplate the exiles’ return at the time of the fall festival when the autumn rains bring new life to the parched land. He portrayed the return of the exiles as if they were on a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage brought about by God alone, who is revealed in his mercy and justice.

Some 25 centuries later, we read and hear this prophecy in a world which once again is witness to a seemingly endless procession of exiles – refugees from Central America who are presently stranded on our own southern border and others around the world where war and chaos currently destroy lives and families and the very fabric of society itself. Wherever they come from and wherever they go, our obligation, as the United States’ Bishops have reminded us is “to care for and stand with newcomers, authorized and unauthorized, including unaccompanied immigrant children, refugees and asylum-seekers, those unnecessarily detained, and victims of human trafficking” [Faithful Citizenship, 81] .

The similarities between then and now remind us that the stage on which John's solemn pronouncement is being proclaimed is not just some far-off 1st-century desert oasis but every time and place, including notably our own.

The geographical desert was just John's starting-point - as it had been Israel's starting-point way back when. Rather than remain in the wilderness, the word of God takes John out of the desert and into the world. God's word wants to be heard - by everyone, where people actually are. In the words of the prophet Isaiah that Luke quotes: all flesh shall see the salvation of God [Isaiah 40:5].

For most of us, preoccupied as we inevitably are with our busy day-to-day lives and our here-and-now concerns, John the Baptist reminds us what Advent and Christmas are all about - God's word's active movement into our world. Isaiah said all flesh shall see the salvation of God, but in John that future is already happening in the present. And, as in Isaiah's day and as in John's, there are certainly plenty of valleys to be filled and mountains and hills to be leveled by God’s grace and mercy in our world.

Advent, as we are always being told, is all about waiting and eager expectation. But waiting for what, exactly? Surely not just for Santa Claus! For Christ? Yes, for Christ - but surely not for Christ to be born! That happened a long time ago in Bethlehem. Otherwise, we wouldn't be praying here in this church today! If I may quote Isaac Hecker again: Christ has come. Christ is here, now upon earth. Christ ever abides with [us] according to His word. What the age promises [us] is the rending asunder the clouds of error which hinder [us] from seeing that Christ is here. [The Church and the Age, 1887]

Like the first coming of Christ, which John proclaimed way back then, the day-in, day-out, here-and-now, coming of Christ, which the Church lives all year long, invites a convinced and committed response on our part. That kind of response can only be sustained when we become convinced, as Saint Paul so clearly was, that the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus [Philippians 4:7]

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 9, 2018

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