Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Reform your Lives

Second Sunday of Advent Year C

This Second Sunday of Advent, the gospel introduces us to a significant figure of the season, St John the Baptist. He stands at the threshold between the Old and New Testaments, a bridge linking the two.  In John we see the culmination of centuries of prophecy, anticipation, and preparation.

Luke introduces the ministry of John the Baptist by situating him in real time. In the ancient world, events were often dated according to the reigns of the kings in power. Luke by providing a list of the political leaders of the region Jesus lived and served in, is setting the stage for his story, a story which will have a real, historical framework. All these details are not simply boring history. They show us that the Gospels are based on actual historical events. It is not a made-up story - a fairy tale with a “once upon a time” beginning.

But it must be said that Luke gave more than a chronological measure; he also told us something of the tenor of the times. Tiberius was an emperor, a god-king, known for his cruelty and severity and much hated by the local Jews. Pontius Pilate, his representative and pawn, was notorious for his brutal massacres of the Jewish people in Judea and his insensitivity towards the Jews. The rulers descended from Herod the Great, were no better than their forebear. They too were known for their corruption, cruelty, debauchery and political compromise with the hated colonisers. To add to the mix of political leaders, two additional religious leaders, who also held political power, were added. This is as real as it can get. Against the stark background of the political malaise in the Roman Imperial system, the prophet John the Baptist now rises to announce the coming of God’s Anointed One who would bring about God’s salvation. All these rulers who should have been the solution were really the problem. John now announces the solution, Jesus.

Another reason for the additions of these names is that Luke wishes to add a universal dimension to the familiar story. He places John the Baptist into world history and makes us wonder why, with so many powerful people around, God chose to send his word to a person like John in an obscure part of the world, the wilderness beyond the Jordan. This new information encourages us in our Christmas preparations to gaze outside our small world at the big world outside, and to grasp how the Christmas story is a gift for the whole of humanity and no mere domestic celebration. John’s message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins is for all.

One would imagine that with such an array of notables, who held sway over those who came under their rule, their mention by Luke would eclipse the ignoble personality of John the Baptist, introduced as John the son of Zechariah. Those unfamiliar with scriptures and Christian Tradition would immediately respond with a startled question, “Who the hell is he?” How did this no-body get mixed up with all these famous and powerful people? But the story would soon reveal, that it is John the Baptist who will eclipse all others. We have forgotten the names of the others. But the name of John the Baptist continues to be mentioned and preached from every pulpit on this Sunday.

In ancient times messengers ran ahead of a king journeying on the road, announcing his coming and encouraging the people to prepare themselves and their towns to receive the royal visitor.  Messengers did not take this role upon themselves, but were appointed to it.  So too was John an envoy, a herald chosen and called by God to announce the imminent coming of his Son and the reign of God breaking forth among his people.  People flocked to the desert, to see John and hear what he was preaching.  John’s influence was so widespread that this man, who had neither army nor nation to rule, would send shivers through the spine of the “powers-that-be”.  The first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “All the people thronged around him and hung on his every word. Herod was afraid that he would use his hold on men to incite them to rebel.  In his eyes they appeared ready to do anything if John but spoke the word.”

But John had no ambition for political power nor did he wish to create a massive cult following like so many other religious founders. In his relationship with his disciples John never lost sight of his mission to point them not to himself but to the one to come.  He did not jealously demand their loyalty.  Rather, it would seem that he readied them to follow the Messiah whose way he was preparing.  John was true to his mission as a herald.  He never claimed more than God assigned to him or attempted to promote himself.  He was willing to fulfill his role as forerunner, and step aside at Jesus' appearance.  In his death John continued to be a forerunner of Jesus.  To some degree John understood the sacrificial nature of Christ's life when he named Jesus the “Lamb of God.”   John was a man free from himself, free from fear of the opinions of others, free to direct all his energies to the one he came to announce, free for God.

John knew that his role lay in preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah, a preparation that demanded conversion of heart and transformation.  It was not enough to stop sinning.  The real fruits of repentance must be apparent in the way one lived. The call of John to “Prepare a way for the Lord,” to “make his paths straight” requires not just cosmetic or superficial change. It demands a massive engineering. He challenged his listeners to straighten out the crooked parts of their lives, to tear down the mountains of their evil doing, and to fill in the valleys of their shortcomings. The radical conversion of heart is necessary so that no obstacles may be placed for the coming of the awaited one. This was no “nice” politically correct sermon tactfully designed so as to avoid offending anyone. John didn’t pull any punches. He called sin, sin. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI had this to say about the Baptist, “He did not keep silent about the truth and thus died for Christ who is the Truth. Precisely for love of the truth he did not stoop to compromises and did not fear to address strong words to anyone who had strayed from God’s path... The Truth is Truth; there are no compromises. Christian life demands, so to speak, the “martyrdom” of daily fidelity to the Gospel, the courage, that is, to let Christ grow within us and let him be the One who guides our thought and our actions.”

It is clear that John's message did not die with him.  Our Advent Liturgy ensures this. It is time to face the truth about sin, about ourselves, and about Christ. It is time to cast aside our illusions about the Caesars and Pilates of today who continue to indoctrinate us with their contrary ideologies, ideologies promising well-being, but in truth, leading us further into damnation. The need for repentance and conversion of heart must remain constant among us.  And that is why John's words have continued to resound in Christians' ears throughout the centuries.  The Advent  liturgy vibrates with the challenge of his cry, “Reform your lives!”.  May we take John's call to heart!

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