Get ready – God is on the move!
That is the message of our readings today. It is meant to send a thrill through us, especially if we have been waiting for so long for God to intervene in our world and in our lives. In our first reading, from the prophet Baruck, the people of Jerusalem, indeed of the whole of Israel, had been waiting for over 70 years for God to deliver them from exile in Babylon and lead them back to their homeland. Baruch paints the picture for them of a glorious return, in which their God will lead them out from exile with joy, cleansed from the sin which led to them being surrendered over to the Babylon kingdom in the first place. Our psalmist today sees the returning exiles, who had left their homeland in tears, now coming back with shouts of joy. Their time of affliction and sorrow was a time for them to sow seeds of repentance and conversion, and now they are reaping the joyful harvest of a fresh start with their God.
Fast forward to our gospel, and now it is John the Baptist prophesying to a people who had been waiting 400 years to see the salvation of God (why we have four candles on our Advent wreath). John’s sudden appearance in the wilderness of Judea, and his equally astonishing message that the time for God to send his Messiah, his Chosen One, as Savior to Israel, had now arrived, electrified the Jewish people. They even believed that John the Baptist was himself the appointed Messiah, a belief that John himself, and the gospel writers go to great pains to deny. John is just the forerunner, the voice in the wilderness, calling people to get ready for the One who is to come, Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. And as with Baruch, the way to get ready is the way of repentance. In the Ancient Near East, the coming of a new king, or a new ruler, was announced throughout the country by messengers sent in advance. They would tell town after town, city after city, to clear away any obstacle on the entrance road, any rocks or potholes or shrubs, all the garbage, so as to receive their king with honour.
But John the Baptist is not talking about just a physical and social make-over. His call is a call to repentance, to deal with the potholes and crooked ways within us, to level the mountains and hills of pride and stubbornness, to fill the valleys of emptiness, of counterfeit and superficial pleasures, in us with the word of God and His Holy Spirit. In a word, to pursue the ways of a thorough and lasting conversion of mind and heart and spirit.And that is the call to each one of us in every Advent season. For our King, our Savior, Jesus the Christ is coming, at the end of time, and we don’t want to shame ourselves, by allowing laziness, ignorance or foolishness, to cloud our vision and lead us to be totally unprepared for His Coming. Now is the time, says Baruch, says John the Baptist, says the Church, to get ready for an event whose time we do not know, but which is coming. Advent is not just about getting ourselves ready spiritually to celebrate the First Coming of Jesus, the Christmas event. Much more importantly, it is about getting ourselves ready for his Second Coming, at the end of time, when the image of mountains being levelled, and valleys being filled in, is meant to tell us that there will be no hiding place for ourselves and for our sins.
There is a beautiful irony contained in the opening passage of our gospel today, the gospel of Saint Luke. All those names of people and places are not put down to make our readers at Mass, suffer heart failure and get their tongues all twisted. Luke is making the point that the events of Jesus’ life really happened. They are solid, historical facts, taking place among the leading figures of the time, and in actual geographical places. We know the identities and dates of the people named, and so we can date accurately when Jesus was born, and where, and when and where he performed his ministry, and when and where he died, and rose again. Those cynics and atheists among us, who ignorantly proclaim that all things to do with Jesus, all the events of the gospels, are made up, myths and legends, mere fantasies, have not taken the trouble to examine the solid historical foundations on which the gospels are based. Luke is a serious historian, and is at pains to make this clear (cf Luke 1: 1-4).
But more than this, there is an exquisite irony in the fact that all those historical leaders and rulers mentioned in our gospel today, people who believed they were the true history-shapers and influencers, as the most powerful people on the planet, got it so wrong. In fact, the true events that shaped history, and changed its destiny, took place under their noses and without their knowledge or understanding. Jesus, the center of human history , as well as its definitive shaper and destiny, is born and lives in humble and ordinary circumstances. He never reached worldwide status and power while he was alive, only after he was dead and gone from the earth. But while today, these other historical rulers are just footnotes of history, Jesus is the one who is worshipped by two billion people, and remembered across the world and honored in so many places and by so many people, and in whose name history is divided into two parts: Before Christ, B.C, and After Christ, A.D. .
It is to the humble, the simple, the disregarded and ordinary, that Jesus reveals himself, gives himself, and bequeaths the promises of God to be safeguarded and called continually to mind. We who gather together like this in church, who keep the Advent themes alive, who bring out and dust off the figures of the manger at this time, who ensure our schools and churches have Nativity plays each year, who spend time with the Scriptures, tracing the prophecies about God’s salvation to their fulfilment in Jesus, in these and in so many other ways we keep our world on track towards its destiny, its ultimate encounter with Christ at the end of time, and the beginning of eternity. The fact that there are fewer active, believing Christians in the West these days, compared to decades ago, may be personally discouraging to us who feel we are somehow out of step with everyone else, as if we were human dinosaurs. But we need to remember the constant teaching of the Bible, that God loves it that way, that he delights in confounding the many-headed, those arrogant souls who believe that man is the measure of everything, and that they don’t need a Savior, or any kind of god, because they are gods themselves.
Baruch’s vision in our first reading of a relatively small group of exiles returning home, having seen their God demolish the mightiest empire the world had ever seen, is meant to inspire hope and confidence in us that, despite our smallness in number and importance, ultimately Christ will return in all his glory, and we, for whom Christ is the centre of our lives, will be revealed in all our glory at that time as well. Such is the promise of St Paul’s letter to the Colossians, chapter 3, verse 4. Provided.Provided we have been doing what Paul urges us to do in our second reading, to keep sharing in the gospel by our prayer, our witness and our offered – up suffering, and overflowing with love and righteousness and faith right through to the end. So Advent comes again at this time to inspire us to put off the garments of worldly pleasures and lifestyles, and clothe ourselves again with the robe of righteousness first put on us at our baptism, when we were charged to keep that robe unstained by sin, right up to the second coming of Jesus at the end of time.
One final thought.
We have now begun throughout the whole Catholic Church a process of consultation, discussion and sharing, called a synodal process, in preparation for the Synod gathering of bishops in Rome in 2023. The theme of this process is “journeying together”. Like the Israelites of the first reading, the Philippian Christians of the second reading, and the Jews of the gospel, we are on pilgrimage together, and as we journey towards the Promised Land of Heaven, we will, and we must, interact with all kinds of people from different backgrounds, different faiths or no faith, at different stages of their own personal journey. To them all, we must give constant witness to Jesus Christ as the central, defining figure of all human history, whether people believe and accept him as such or not. How we do that, how we fulfil our call, our response to the word of God as it comes to us, as it came to John the Baptist in our gospel today, we will be debating throughout the coming year.
So get ready, God is on the move, preparing to come into your life and change it forever.