Sunday, December 8, 2013
Second Sunday of Advent
Matthew 3:1-12 (Good News Translation)1 At that time John the Baptist came to the desert of Judea and started preaching. 2 “Turn away from your sins,” he said, “because the Kingdom of heaven is near!” 3 John was the man the prophet Isaiah was talking about when he said, “Someone is shouting in the desert, ‘Prepare a road for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel!’” 4 John's clothes were made of camel's hair; he wore a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 People came to him from Jerusalem, from the whole province of Judea, and from all over the country near the Jordan River. 6 They confessed their sins, and he baptized them in the Jordan. 7 When John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him to be baptized, he said to them, “You snakes—who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send? 8 Do those things that will show that you have turned from your sins. 9 And don't think you can escape punishment by saying that Abraham is your ancestor. I tell you that God can take these rocks and make descendants for Abraham! 10 The ax is ready to cut down the trees at the roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire. 11 I baptize you with water to show that you have repented, but the one who will come after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is much greater than I am; and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals. 12 He has his winnowing shovel with him to thresh out all the grain. He will gather his wheat into his barn, but he will burn the chaff in a fire that never goes out. ”
All of a sudden, new elements have literally appeared in our liturgical landscape: the desert, a special place which, for the Israelites, brings back memories of their pilgrimage towards the Promised Land, doubts and temptations, the revelation of Yahweh and his Covenant … and a peculiar, unique character, John the Baptist. Additionally, we are presented with a new dimension in time: not only the eschatological future announced in Isaiah and the Gospel from last week, but a present relatively close to the readers of Matthew (3:1a): “In those days, John the Baptist appeared…” And there is a reminder for us too, that salvation is at hand and we have to prepare ourselves to receive God’s gift. All this makes us adopt a new and different approach to Advent. Accustomed as we are to celebrating Jesus’ birth, we run the risk of missing the rest of his history. Let us remember that, after the Epiphany, our first holiday will be Jesus’ baptism, immediately followed by his temptations and the beginning of his ministry. It is also important to remember that neither Mark nor John mentions Jesus’ birth, each beginning their Gospel account with John’s preaching. So, let us delve into the new elements in today’s liturgy. The desert, where John preaches, provides us with the ambiance. As with Jesus’ temptations, it is in that solitude that God (and his message) makes himself manifest, provided we dare open our ears and eyes, and understand our present situation. The socio-political climate in which we live is quite similar to that of Jesus’ time. Each is a period of unrest, where traditional values have been abandoned; where people do not trust anymore in authority, whether political or religious; and where there is a deep need exhibited for a leader, a hero, someone who will embody the promises of old and bring about a new order of peace and reconciliation. John is not the only preacher of the moment, nor is his message different from that proclaimed by other prophets of doom. There is, however, something special about John’s message. Besides urging the people to repent, he announces the coming of the Kingdom of God, and someone who will be the One really sent from on high to baptize Israel, not with water as he does, but with fire and the Spirit to transform the squalor of their existence. According to Matthew (3:2, 4:17), John’s words are exactly the same as those Jesus will use from the very beginning of his ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” However, when we compare the way in which Jesus and John express that “repentance,” we find a tremendous difference. John’s message is basically ascetic. One has the feeling that it only implies renouncement, whereas Jesus will add a saving tone and content. He is the one who announces the “good news of the Kingdom” and brings pardon, mercy, reconciliation, health in soul and body. No doubt, his life will be the fulfilment of today’s passage from Isaiah: he will judge the poor with justice, and the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord. Even nature will live in a state of peace and concord. Even so, in spite of seeing in baby Jesus the one who will bring peace to the earth and reconciliation to our human world, we have ahead of us the task of preparing the path for the Lord who comes to save us. That is why John’s message is still valid and necessary, for we run the real danger experienced by the Pharisees and Sadducees: the danger of reducing our “Advent baptism” to a mere religious ritual (Advent candles, Christmas carols, perhaps Midnight Mass…) or even to the respectable, but pagan, rite of sharing a family meal and exchanging presents. As it was in their case, presuming or even boasting of our condition as Christians, or descendants of Abraham, cannot spare us from the demand to repent.
This Sunday, there has been a shift in our journey through Advent. We have moved from announcing a message of hope to adopting the attitudes that the promises demand something of us. Which of the words uttered by John apply to our personal way of life? What are the fruits that the Lord, upon his coming, will expect from us? To what extent do our mentality and our attitude in life reflect the demands of the Gospel? Is the “spirit of Christmas” something more than a commercial slogan or a mere “seasonal greeting”? Paul (how often do we underestimate the “second reading”!) insists on the importance of reconciliation and harmony between Christians from Jewish and Gentile backgrounds. What are the frontiers we draw, and who are the other Christians with whom we should be reconciled?
Pray for those who see their rights tramped on or denied, who look for justice and fair sentences in their lives, who need to overcome the anguish of a life without hope: that the Lord, the just judge, will satisfy their hunger for righteousness. Let us pray for ourselves: that John’s message may drive us to look for a new way to live through this Advent season as a period of transformation, a time to receive the Lord in our lives and reflect on his saving presence.
Christmas is the celebration of God’s coming to us and communicating with us. Let us prepare for the Nativity by getting closer to one another. We all have a number of forgotten relatives or friends who remain for months in the dark corner of our memory. Before the mess of these holidays arrives, couldn’t we pay a visit to some of them? Couldn’t we at the very least make a phone call or write a few lines (not a Christmas card!), to make them feel they are not completely ignored?
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón Roman Catholic priest Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain
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