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Dr. John Lee
THE SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT C 2009/2018 BOARBANK HALL
In today’s Gospel reading we are expected to know a little history and a little geography. One thing was clear for anyone listening to these texts, even if he or she could not read them, was that real space and place and time were being indicated by these words. This is not the stuff of myth and legend.
The Roman Empire
In 63 BC under Pompey, - in marched the Romans- hence the reference to Tiberias. We all know him. He took over as emperor after the death of Augustus in 14 AD. Pontius Pilate was Praetor in Palestine from 26 -36 AD. (The Israelis have just deciphered his name on a ring discovered in 1967!).The Jewish people mentioned were all part of the trial of Jesus.
John the Baptist and The Desert
He is one of the most enigmatic persons in all history. He was clearly important. The great surprise is why he did not join Jesus- it is just possible that Jesus had started with him. Certainly some of his disciples began with the Baptist and left him for Jesus- at the suggestion of the Baptist. He was religiously significant and politically dangerous. Religion and politics are closely joined in the world of Israel. John called for reform, social reform. And he did not exempt the king from moral obligations. That cost him his life. He was preaching a universally accepted morality in Israel. When Jesus followed he did not change anything that the Baptist had taught. Both called for radical conversion.
This word had a serious place in the vocabulary of the great prophets. To convert was to turn over a new leaf, to retrace one’s steps, to begin again. That would have involved a social and economic upheaval. Our politicians today just talk of a change of policy, meaning its expediency, not its rectitude. Conversion is a religious word. Strategy is a profane one. The society of the Baptist and of Jesus was religious. That would have meant that transgressions were all the more appalling.
What could the listeners then have understood by that word? Basically health, wealth, and a good life lived out in peaceful relationships. That would have involved a considerable change in society also. There should have been no poor in Israel. They were the people of God’s covenant. It was a scandal that there were self-indulgent rich while there were desperate poor in the same society. Yet one must be careful not to confuse conversion with rebellion. That discussion is very old in the history of mankind. I suppose all languages have a word for violent revolt. It was important for Jews and Christians to show that such was not their aim. Later the Messiah would be crucified as a rebel against the Romans. And I suppose the Baptist could have been construed as rebelling against Herod- he accused him publicly of not honouring the Law in Israel. But the violence came from the other side.
This is a religious word with the profoundest implications. Examples are always the best. David repented of his destructive relationship with Bathsheba and the horrible treatment of her husband. Zacchaeus would have repented of extortion as a chief of tax collectors had he defrauded anyone. You can only be forgiven when you repent. As Peter was. As the woman sinner was who anointed the feet of Jesus. The words love and compassion go together here. Where we find these words we encounter the best in humanity. Without them humans are harsh and self-indulgent. They have iron in the soul.
This is the name for Gospel. And it includes all that Jesus was and said and did- and it includes its preparatory stage with the Baptist. The ordinary needs of ordinary humanity are addressed under this rubric. What can I know? What can I do? What can I hope for? (Kant). The miracles effect all that we need physically, provided we have faith, and what that means for our personal and social flourishing and integration. We need food, and health, and money and good relationships, and continuous peace and security. We need a world in which we love and are loved. But we also need the words of Our Lord that tell us what we could not tell ourselves. That God loves us. That love is the guide to life. That Jesus made a commandment of love, and that God’s name is love. Faith includes the acceptance of all of this.
Now we are constantly encouraged to look around and see what we need for a life of quality. We need more than bread. We need more than money. We need more than success. We need a point and purpose for our lives, and for the life of everyone else. The Gospel gives the answer: I am the way the truth and the life (Jn 14:6). And we can read how this works out in Phil 1:3-6. 8-11, our second reading today. “May your love for each other increase more and more and never stop improving your knowledge and increasing your perception…to become pure and blameless until the Day of Christ.”
The Sundays of Advent are intended to hone our knowledge and desire for these things. We associate all of this with coming joy. Christmas is not intended to be miserable. So we buy each other presents and generally look forward to a happy and peaceful time. We live our faith in time and space. This is our world while we are alive. The Good News is intended to be heard in this world. The various prayers in the Mass today will instruct us on what to hope for. We express them personally and as a community. The Sisters came off retreat last week in preparation for the future, and our health and hope conference here this week is looking at this same Good News. The blind see, the lame walk, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. We pray that it may be a helpful time for all of us as we approach Christmas.
Rev Richard J. Taylor
Spiritual Advisor Matercare International
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK