by Br Julian McDonald cfc

In the fifteenth year of the rule of Tiberias…during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God was spoken to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert. He went about the entire region of the Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance which led to the forgiveness of sins, as is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A herald’s voice in the wilderness, crying: ‘Make ready the way of the Lord…and all humankind shall see the salvation of God.’”     Luke 3, 1-6

My limited knowledge of the Old or First Testament leads me to think that the central figure of today’s gospel-reading might well have been the first hippie listed in recorded history. I sometimes wonder what his parents Elizabeth and Zechariah might have thought of their only son and his somewhat unusual life-style. Perhaps God saved them the embarrassment of trying to explain to their neighbours just what had gotten into their son, by taking them to heaven before John went wild. In light of Zechariah’s high profile in the Temple, John, too, would probably have been in line for an important position. However, he chose to go in a different direction.

Luke expands on that different direction in today’s gospel-reading. He starts by listing all the notables in positions of power, and then proceeds to point out that God’s word eluded them all and, instead, came to an eccentric, who was living an alternate life-style. I wonder if there is something about position and power that makes those, who aspire to those things or who have them, impervious to hearing or understanding the word of God. By way of contrast, God’s word took hold of John and fired him up to embark on a mission of waking up his world. John found a freedom that escapes many of us. Ignoring both fear and favour, he found within himself the ability to share the insights that God’s Spirit had led him to discover. Luke, having reflected on John and his frenzied activity of calling people to a change of heart and outlook, described him as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that there would come on the scene an obscure figure who would call people to ready themselves for the coming of the Messiah by changing their hearts:

“A herald’s voice in the desert, crying: ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, clear him a straight path. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be levelled. The windings shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth, and all humankind shall see the salvation of God” (Isaiah 40, 3-5).

It takes courage and integrity for anyone to claim her/his freedom. In that regard John the Baptist is a model and inspiration for us all. Dawna Markova is a woman of our own times who seems to have found her freedom, and is not afraid to claim it in the public forum. Perhaps we, too can learn from her as we do from the Baptist: “I will not die an unlived life. I will not live in fear of falling or catching fire. I choose to inhabit my days, to allow my living to open me, to make me less afraid, more accessible, to loosen my heart until it becomes a wing, a torch, a promise. I choose to risk my significance; to live so that which came to me as a seed goes to the next as a blossom and that which came to me as a blossom, goes on as fruit.”

John, of course, by using the metaphor of road maintenance and redirection, was calling his people to set about changing their own hearts and challenging the predominant culture to direct its resources to things like justice, compassion and security for everyone. He was echoing the message of Isaiah that God’s saving love is for everyone without exception, and that the first step, for all who came to listen to him and be baptised, was to straighten out their lives, to get rid of whatever was blocking the way for the word of God to touch their hearts.

Advent, as we know, is a time for us to stop and ponder the significance of the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus. While Jesus, like John, spent some time in the wilderness before embarking on his mission, he immersed himself in all the nonsense, strife and madness of what is involved in living life in close proximity to other struggling human beings. He was born in a stable on the edge of a small town that was so overcrowded that there wasn’t even basic accommodation available. And he grew up in a culture that was so plagued with religious rivalry and infighting that he ended his life on a cross provided by agents of a culture that was anathema to those who practiced Judaism.

The crowded urban cultures in which most of us live are quite simply symptoms of the brokenness of our world, a brokenness that cries to be mended, but a brokenness we feel unable to address because of fear, a sense of helplessness or a reluctance to claim our true freedom.

The arrival of John the Baptist with his call to all to open themselves to a change of heart and spirit came as a surprise. Yet his call evidently woke his part of the world from its slumber. His appearance was a surprise, but a reminder to those around him that the God he proclaimed is a God of surprises. Moreover, he is a reminder to us that we can never predict exactly when and how God will appear in our lives. However, we can be sure that God is present to us somehow in the events that fill our days, if only we have ears to hear and eyes to see.

This Sunday’s gospel-reading is an invitation to us to stop and ponder what is calling for change in our own hearts. There will be no possibility of change if we think there is no reason to change. If we are happy that the geography of our hearts needs no maintenance or alteration, then we will stay in our ruts. But perhaps we may need to do something to open a pathway by which God can find a way into our hearts as we prepare for Christmas.

If we are tempted to think that all this is in the too-hard basket, we might do well to look at today’s second reading from Paul to the Philippians. Many of us write letters at this time of the year to bring extended family members up to date. Today’s extract from Philippians is a little like that. To a community with whom he has worked, Paul gives credit for their efforts to spread the good news of Jesus. But he takes no credit for his own efforts. He attributes their good work to the fact that they have opened their hearts to Jesus and God’s Spirit, but that’s the kind of thing God does if we take the risk of providing an opening for God to work in and through us. The invitation of Advent is to open up, even just a little, to allow Jesus to come in.