In The Wizard of Oz, the Good Witch wisely advised Dorothy “to begin at the beginning.” That is what the Church does today as it announces: The beginning of the gospel [that is, the “good news”] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God [Mark 1:1]. We are, literally, at the title page of Mark’s Gospel, a title that tells us the central facts of the Christian story. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. In Jesus, God himself has come among us. And it’s all good news.
All the more noteworthy, then, that the story doesn’t actually start with Jesus, but begins instead with John the Baptist, who appeared in the desert, as if out of nowhere. Every year at this time, the Church takes John the Baptist out of storage, so he can outshout the deafening din of our everyday noise and (at, least in more normal, non-pandemic times) our holiday pandemonium, with his ancient but ever timely warning, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Actually, on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, the good news comes to us in three voices. First, there is Isaiah, Advent’s pre-eminent prophet. Times were tough in Israel – her capital in ruins, her Temple destroyed - when Isaiah spoke the consoling words we just heard. Just when everything seemed so hopeless, the prophet proclaimed glad tidings and good news. It’s enough to make you sit up and pay attention. Like a shepherd the Lord feeds his flock. When you’re hungry – and we’re all hungry for something – the promise of being fed, as a shepherd feeds his flock, that’s good news indeed!
Then there is the actual voice of one crying out in the desert. For most of us, I suspect, John the Baptist seems a somewhat mysterious, elusive figure. He appears, ever so briefly, as a kind of warm-up act at the beginning of Jesus’ public life. Then, when we’ve barely even gotten to know him, he gets himself arrested – and is soon dead. Were we today to encounter such an apparently odd-looking character, clothed in camel’s hair and eating locusts and wild honey, chances are that many – maybe most - might try to ignore him. Fortunately, that did not happen the first time John’s jarring message was heard in the land.
Meanwhile, sandwiched in between Isaiah and John, and so easy to overlook, we hear Peter, speaking for the Church, proposing our response.
And like the Israelites in exile and like those early Christians to whom Peter wrote, we wonder what this all means. Like Isaiah and John, Peter had to respond to the tension – the personal and social stress – of being in-between, of being between the challenging and perplexing present in which we confusingly find ourselves and the promising future for which we have been taught to hope.
Living in that in-between may be no easier for us than for those Peter was addressing. Our contemporary way of life with its ultra-fast pace and information overload is sort of like a collective case of attention-deficit-disorder. Thanks to this pandemic and all the other problems it has highlighted so dramatically, we are also obviously a civilization in severe distress. And we may be even less able to see our way through, thanks to our technologically induced impatience.
But God is patient with us, Peter assures us. And so, he asks us to ask ourselves, what sort of persons ought we to be, here and now, in this in-between time, while we wait not just for Christmas morning and the presents we hope to find under our tree, but for that endless Christmas dinner our entire life is a preparation for?
As for John, we are told the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him. What, one wonders, did they see in John that we might be more tempted to ignore? Whatever they saw, the point is that they listened and acted. When we hear him now, our task too is to listen – so as to act on what we hear.
So, however shrill John may sound to our super sensitive ears, attuned as we are to very different kinds of marketing appeals, we need now to hear his call as an invitation to the true blessing that Christmas offers.
John’s mission, as clarified by the Gospel’s reference back to Isaiah’s prophecy [Isaiah 40:1-5], was about filling in valleys, leveling mountains and hills, and repairing whatever is rugged and rough – picturesque, ancient imagery that suggests fixing things. For us it suggests facing up to all those gaps and flaws and failings and sins in our personal lives, in our relationships, in our work, in our country, and in our world, and allowing God to guide us in fixing them.
It’s a challenge we may be tempted to try to evade – the way for years now we have been evading fixing our real and present social and environmental and public health problems.
Advent challenges us instead to set aside our self-destructive habits and behavior and instead internalize John the Baptist’s invitation in every aspect of our lives and so bring John the Baptist’s message into the very heart of our society – through our participation in the community of the Church, a community acutely conscious of Christ’s coming and eager to share him and so remake our conflicted, anxiety-ridden world.
Advent asks more questions than it answers. The answer, of course, is Christmas, which even now in spite of everything that has happened this year has the power to light up the world. How much brighter will the world be when we respond fully to Advent’s invitation, when the full reality of Christ’s coming finally makes a difference for us all? Meanwhile, be eager, as Peter says, to find him - and to be found by him.
Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 6, 2020. The entire Mass can be watched at: