Last week the young cricketer Philip Hughes was laid to rest after he died tragically in a freak accident. Watching it on television was a very moving experience. Some of this had to do with the fact that he was young, very talented and with a promising career ahead, but the knowledge that millions of people were watching this all over the world surely added to the occasion. It was something similar this time last year when the whole world was in sympathy with South Africa in their grief for Nelson Mandela. It is one thing for an individual to have a deep, personal experience. It is of an entirely different order when a whole nation is moved. Therein lies an extraordinary energy – a magic that cannot be contained.
We get a glimpse of this kind of energy in today’s Gospel. In the desert there appears a new prophet. He comes “to prepare the way of the Lord”. His invitation however isn’t just directed to a few individuals. It is addressed to the people as a whole. The people’s response is moving. According to the evangelist, they left Judea and Jerusalem and marched “into the desert” to hear the voice that is calling them. One senses a great expectation in the air. The people had longed for centuries for the promised one and now, with John’s appearance in the desert, their hopes are raised once more.
John wants them as a people to prepare the way of the Lord, a concrete and well defined path, one that Jesus will take in order to reach into their hearts. Notice that he is talking about the Lord’s way to them and not vice versa, their way to the Lord. It is God who is doing the coming in the person of Jesus and the people must make every effort to be prepared and ready to receive him.
That John appears in the desert is highly symbolic as it recalls their ancient faithfulness to God. The forty years that Moses and his people spent in the wilderness was a time of special intimacy with God. Taken away from ordinary creature comforts that make life tolerable, the people learned to put their whole hearted trust in God. Here they discovered God as their friend and ally, but above all it is the place where they can hear the call to conversion once more.
In the desert the people take stock of the situation they’re living in; they experience their need to change; they recognize their sins without blaming one another; they feel the need for salvation. According to Mark “they confessed their sins” and John baptised them. One senses that this pilgrimage had a deep bonding effect on the community as a whole.
What does all this say to us today? When Pope Francis addressed the European parliament recently, he described Europe as old and haggard. In many parts of the world one could say the same about the Church and Christianity today. It has become old and haggard. Back in 1975 Pope Paul asked the question in his famous encyclical, “the Evangelisation of Peoples’, “In our day, what has happened to that hidden energy of the Good News, which is able to have a powerful effect on people’s conscience?” Well the simple answer is that there is nothing wrong with the hidden energy of the good news. It’s still as powerful as ever. The issue is ourselves. Are we able to receive the good news? Are we the good soil that can nurture the Word of God and enable it to bear fruit? Or have we put blockages in the way so the Lord cannot reach into our hearts.
Two such blockages come to mind. One is routine, that déjà vu feeling that there is nothing new under the sun. We are Christian already. We have done this Advent thing time and again. We know all about the coming of Christ. Ok we might need a bit of fine tuning here and there, or a bit of clean living but that’s about it. This is the attitude of a closed mind, that will not and cannot entertain the God of surprises. Such a mentality has ruled out going into the desert, nor does it want to hear any voice that calls for change and conversion. It distracts itself with just any old thing in order to forget its fears and perhaps its greatest fear is opening up to the truth of Jesus.
The other block is individualism. While each individual has certain rights and should be encouraged to develop his or her talents, today individualism has come to mean doing one’s own thing without taking any consideration for the rights or interests of others or society at large. The fact remains that God calls us, not as individuals, but as a community. And so the words of John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord are addressed to us today as a community. In many ways these words are more true now than ever before because many of the issues in today’s world, such as global warming cannot be tackled at an individual level but demands the concerted effort of the whole human community.
The image of the Jewish people “confessing their sins” is admirable. Don’t we Christians of today need to make a collective examination of conscience at all levels, in order to recognize our faults and sins? Without this recognition, is it possible “to prepare the way of the Lord”?
Like the people of John’s time we too long for a better world and a time when suffering will cease. However, such a change will not come by the waving of a divine magic wand. It will come when we prepare ourselves for it, when we open our minds and hearts to the gift that is offered to us at Christmas. It is not a call for sentimentality about the child in the manger. It a radical call to change and that is never easy. That is why Advent is such an appropriate time to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation. There we encounter the all-embracing love of God who never ceases to offer us new life and hope and who empowers us to be his instruments for change in a world torn apart by selfishness and greed. What better way could there be to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness of our hearts?
Sunday 7 December 2014