4 Dec 2011
“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” (Isa. 40:1) In the name …
Today we meet one of the central figures of the Advent Season: John the Baptist. The thought and proclamation most associated with John is “Prepare the way of the Lord,” but what does this mean? I think we all know it’s not Christmas trees and lights. I think we all also know there is definitely a spiritual component to this proclamation. This is why the church invites us to come to the special Advent Masses and Services. We will become the spiritual mangers of the coming Christ Child. But John will also speak of repentance, and not the kind of repentance we’re used to. Repentance is not only to confess how many times we’ve said a swear or an angry word, how many times we’ve spoken ill of another or avoided telling the truth. Repentance is to change course, to change our very selves. Repentance is the beginning of the effort to become a renew person.
And there’s something even more strange about John’s repentance that we’re just not accustomed to think about any longer. For us today, the idea of repentance probably begins to take form when we’re very young, probably back to the time when we came up individually to the priest to confess our sins. Maybe you confessed in the old confessional booth or maybe up here at the Communion railing, but we confessed alone. And even now as adults, repentance is in the privacy of our own thoughts during General Confession. Our confessions and repentance are between only God and us – nobody else hears. And in this isolation we confess and repent for our own individual lapses.
But John, as the Gospel of Mark alludes to by first mentioning the Old Testament prophecies, is speaking another language than the one we’re familiar with. Mark begins his Gospel by going back to the prophets Malachi and Isaiah. When these prophets spoke of repentance, they weren’t only talking about spiritual faults. They were talking about the ethical, the way we treat each other as individuals and as a society, not only as a person called by God, but as a people called by God. Individual responsibility is coloured by communal responsibility.
How does the community we are a part of stand before the eyes of God? We don’t think like this any more, but Advent is asking us “Why?”. Malachi, for example, doesn’t only preach against the adulterers and the liars (3:5). His repentance also involves, in the very same breath (3:5), the societal sins of taking advantage of the worker, of abusing the underprivileged, the economically desperate and the immigrant in our midst. These are not prophetic condemnations of individuals alone. These are the prophet’s words against his society and of the people who tolerate this kind of world, this kind of treatment. These then become the words of John the Baptist, and these then become the words meant for us. And could they sound ever more relevant than today?
Whatever our personal feelings are about the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and what I say is not meant to judge or persuade any of your thoughts on this matter, that is not my prerogative nor my intention, there is still the undeniable reality that a segment of our population, in cities all across the country, feel disenfranchised, feel left out and ignored, because their opinion is that government is beholden only to the money of the very few and very rich, and not to the vast majority of her people. This is a wide-spread movement so we can ask ourselves, Is enough being done to help the poor and the struggling of our country? Did you know, for example, that the number of students receiving subsidized lunches in our nation’s public schools rose to 21 million children last year, which is a 17% increase in the past five years. 21 million children need to eat healthy at least at school because their families may be too poor to feed them at home. The 17% increase has been credited to the number of middle-income families, families not unlike those sitting here today, that have fallen below the poverty levels because of unemployment and underemployment. These are ordinary families that just can’t make a go of it any longer.
Bringing those figures a bit closer to home, in western Massachusetts more than 65,000 residents do not know where there next meal will come from, which is a 20% increase from four years ago. An estimated 15,000 people receive emergency food assistance each week right here in western Mass from a food pantry, shelter or meal site. When the prophet Isaiah says to us today as part of what it means to repent and prepare the way of the Lord, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” do we even begin to think about the possibility that these are the sort of things God is talking about? Do we con-sider the society we are a part of when we think about our own repentance? You know, Jesus accepted baptism from John, a baptism that today’s Gospel calls “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mk 1:4) Jesus Himself was sinless, but did He submit to John’s baptism because He was a part of a society that wasn’t? Did Jesus appreciate the prophetic message of repentance as ethical and communal, not just spiritual and private? I don’t know how else to explain His baptism. If this is the case from the prophets, through John and even through Jesus, shouldn’t we give it fair consideration too?
Last week we began Advent by emphasizing the full human nature of Jesus. This week let us consider the full humanity of Jesus when we speak of prepare the way and comfort my people. Is there a social, ethical and communal aspect, along with the pious, when we say these words? Since Advent’s message of prepare the way of the Lord is linked with the call to comfort His people, don’t we have to challenge ourselves to think about our world rather than only our souls? Jesus’ full human nature means that He comes for all people, even the outcasts, the poor, our neighbours and even us, and this is His full humanity. Advent reminds us of our connections and our obligations to each other as part of the reality that Jesus brings the kingdom of God to earth. Does what we see around us at all indicate the presence of God’s kingdom; and if it doesn’t, what are we willing to do to prepare His way and com-fort His people? This is where Advent’s repentance needs to take us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. +
Fr. Randolph Calvo