Sunday of Week 2 of Advent


Commentary on Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

LAST SUNDAY’S READINGS focused on the final goal and  meaning of our lives.  It is the reason for the coming of Christ among us.  Today we begin to look more directly at the coming of God’s Son in our midst as a preparation for that final coming.  The central figure in today’s Gospel is John the Baptist.

But, first, we need to look at the powerful passage from Isaiah in the First Reading. It is in two parts:

a. The first is a picture of the perfect King.  He is a descendant of Jesse, who was the father of King David, and clearly points to Jesus.  He is full of the Spirit of God and enjoys the special gifts of the Spirit: wisdom, insight, counsel, power, knowledge and a deep sense of reverence for God.  When Jesus is baptised we will see that Spirit coming down on him in all its fullness.

b. The second part is a picture of the age this King will inaugurate.  It is a regime of justice and peace, free from danger or fear.  This is the ultimate goal of the Reign of God, a goal we have not yet realised but which, with the help of our King, we have great hope of reaching.

We read this, of course, in today’s Mass in the context of Advent and Christmas.  There is a real challenge for us to identify with this programme in word and action.  Strange as it may seem, God expects our co-operation in carrying it out.

A true prophet

But now to John the Baptist, a great figure in his own right and a true prophet in the Jewish tradition with a message from God.  We know he had a large following of disciples and many people came out to the desert to hear him speak.  He performed a ritual in water by which people expressed sorrow for their sinful lives and turned back to God.  That ritual was called baptism.

In some ways the role of John was not unlike that of Jesus, yet, in other ways, very different.

Like Jesus, John preached a message of repentance.  ‘Repentance’ here, as elsewhere in the New Testament, translates the Greek word metanoia (metanoia).  It is much more than just being sorry for the past.  It involves a deep and radical change in one’s thinking and behaviour.  ‘Radical conversion’ would be a better rendering than ‘repentance’, which somehow implies simply going back to one’s past but without the sin.

Like Jesus, too, John will be rejected, persecuted, ‘handed over’ and finally executed for his courageous defence of truth and justice.

But there are also clear differences between John and Jesus.  This was not least in their lifestyles.  John lived a severely ascetical life as a hermit in the desert.  People came out to him; he did not go to them.  Jesus, on the other hand, is seen as a socialiser living mainly in cities and towns.  He goes out of his way to mix with all kinds: rich and poor, religious and secular, good and bad.  Nor does he hesitate to enjoy the hospitality of their houses.  Yet, through it all, Jesus enjoys a high level of personal freedom, at home with all but manipulated by none.  Totally in contact with the world but not tainted or influenced by its weaknesses.

Not equals

John emphasises that Jesus outranks him completely.  He is not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals.  He is simply preparing the way for the Messiah, the Christ, the Saviour King.  Jesus, on the other hand, is the Way.

John’s baptism was an individual expression of a desire to come back from sin to God, to return to a faithful following of the Law.  The baptism of Jesus, on the other hand, comes with the “Holy Spirit and fire”.  It inaugurates a special relationship with Jesus, through which the baptised person becomes incorporated into the very Body of Christ, becomes, as it were, a very extension of Christ himself.  It involves not just personal reformation but becoming involved in the remaking of the whole world, bringing the whole world into the Reign of God.

Two kinds of people

Two kinds of people were coming out to see John.  There were ordinary people, genuine penitents, looking for reconciliation with God.  There were also Pharisees and Sadducees.  However, these came out, not to express sorrow for sin, but to test John’s orthodoxy and observance of the Law.

John has little time for them.  He sees them just as much in need of repentance and conversion as anyone else.  They are not to think that, simply because they are descendants of Abraham, their salvation is assured.  It is not birth, race, religious affiliation, education, social status, or financial clout that makes us friends of God but our awareness of our total dependence on him for everything we need.  Salvation only comes to those who give themselves totally into God’s hands and make his will their own.  No one is saved simply by being born a Law-abiding Jew, as the Pharisees seemed to think, any more than being baptised into the Christian Church alone brings salvation.  Much more is expected.  Jesus later on will say that those who presume they are God’s people but without the actions to prove it will have to give way to tax collectors and prostitutes, who, because they reformed, will go into the Kingdom first.

Matthew is not just lashing out at some Jewish leaders.  The words of John today are primarily directed to ourselves, to the Pharisee and Sadducee in each one of us.  Our most dangerous enemy is complacency: “I’m a good enough Catholic.  I’m not perfect, of course, I’m not a religious fanatic but I keep the basics of my religion.  I’m OK.”  Where our relationships with God are concerned, to stay in the same place is to go backwards.

More than history

If we have such a casual attitude to the demands of our faith, we may look on Advent and Christmas as merely memories of past historical events.  But Advent means “coming” and, if this season is to be meaningful, there has to be a genuine coming of Jesus into our lives both as individuals and as community.  It is a time to remind ourselves of our constant need for metanoia.

If John the Baptist were to come among us today, what would he tell us?  What would he warn us against?  As we come to the end of another calendar year (and the beginning of the Church year) where do we need conversion and change in our lives?  How can we and our families give better witness to the Christian message?  What changes are called for in the way our parish gives corporate witness to the Gospel?  The celebration of Advent calls for a serious consideration of these questions.

We are probably well into preparations for the celebration of Christmas.  But what preparations have I made for the time afterwards, for the year that is ahead?  Will Jesus be really part of my life?  Will he really be entering my life in a special way at this time?  Are his concerns my concerns?  Namely, a desire that I be of service to others, that I work with others to build a better society, founded on love and justice and an equitable sharing of resources.

“Peace (and justice) on earth to those who are God’s friends” needs to become not just the song of the angels but a programme for me and my community.

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