by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Get the road ready for the Lord; make a straight path for him to travel!”
Mark 1, 1-8

One of the big challenges for us as we read and reflect on scripture is to allow ourselves to become participants rather than mere spectators. Though divinely inspired, the Bible is literature, and, like a lot of good literature, many of its stories, while far from factual, offer us invitations to become involved. So, we are able to join the two disciples in their encounter with the stranger on their way to Emmaus, we can identify with one or other of the characters in each of Jesus’ parables, we can allow ourselves to enter into the allegories of the Books of Ruth and Jonah. We become participants.

I have been reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Stone for a Pillow: Journeys with Jacob. Better known as a writer of children’s books, Madeleine L’Engle is also a poet and a writer on spirituality. In her book to which I have just referred, she writes:

On a TV interview I was asked by a clergyman if I believe that fantasy is an essential part of our understanding of the universe and our place in it, and I replied that yes, I do believe this, adding truthfully that Scripture itself is full of glorious fantasy. Yes, indeed, I take the Bible too seriously to take it all literally…Once I remarked that I read the Bible in much the same way as I read fairy tales, and received a shocked response. But fairy tales are not superficial stories. They spring from the depths of the human being. The world of the fairy tale is to some extent the world of the psyche. Like the heroes and heroines of fairy tales, we all start on our journey, our quest, sent out on it at our baptisms. We are, all of us, male and female, the younger brother, who succeeds in the quest because, unlike the elder brother, he knows he needs help; he (the elder brother) cannot do it because he is strong and powerful. We are all, like it or not, the elder brother, arrogant and proud. We are all, male and female, the true princess who feels the pea of injustice under all those mattresses of indifference. And we all have to come to terms with the happy ending, and this may be the most difficult part of all. Never confuse fairy tale with untruth. (A Stone for a Pillow, Convergent Books, New York, 2017, p. 77-79)

Madeleine L’Engle’s insights prepare us to engage with the readings of this second Sunday of Advent. The first reading is from the section of the Book of Isaiah that is generally referred to as the “Book of Consolation”. Isaiah presents himself as God’s messenger to the people of Israel who have been forced to endure a long and bitter exile in Babylon. Isaiah announces that their exile is over but they will still have to face their journey home, and then get involved in the restoration of their nation and the renewal of their faith and trust in God. He assures them that God will be their shepherd, protector and healer of their scars. In the gospel reading, Mark borrows Isaiah’s imagery to describe John the Baptist as the newly arrived herald and prophet of good news to come. We also have to remember that the details of Mark’s description of the Baptist resemble the appearance of the great prophet, Elijah as he is presented in the Second Book of Kings: ‘A man wearing a hair cloak, and a leather loincloth. It was Elijah the Tishbite’ (2 Kings 1, 8). Many Jews, even contemporaries of Jesus, held firmly to the view that Elijah would be the one sent back to earth by God to announce the arrival of the Messiah and the restoration of Israel. Mark, however, presented John the Baptist as the herald of that good news, and as the one who would identify Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. While John would preach repentance and baptize with water, Jesus, the Messiah, would baptize with the Spirit, filling people with the life of God. Today’s second reading from the Second Letter of Peter echoes last Sunday’s theme of patient waiting, stressing that what looks to be a delay in Jesus’ second coming is really a blessing of more time to prepare for his return. Let’s now turn our attention to the Baptist and his exhortation to prepare properly for the coming of the Lord.

John the Baptist was not your ordinary human being. True, he was eccentric in his dress and in the manner in which he presented himself. But that can distract from the distinctiveness of his message and the impact he had on the audiences who gathered to listen to him. He attracted people as though to a magnet – “All Judea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptized by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins” (Mark 1, 5). Moreover, he was totally selfless in the message he proclaimed: “The man who will come after me is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to bend down and untie his sandal” (Mark 1, 7). While he spoke with directness and urgency, and attracted multitudes, he did not bask in notoriety. He took no pride in his success. Instead, he saw Jesus as someone both different and better, and deferred to him. His own extraordinary charism and talent mattered nothing to him.

Just for a moment, compare how our society has conditioned us to compete and compare, and to want to express our individuality. Education from primary school level through to university is built on competing for grades and results. We compete for selection into every kind of team sport. Jobs are allocated on the basis of applicants’ levels of competence. Deep down we know that opportunity is never really equal. Selection is often denied to those whose ethnicity, religion or economic status is perceived as inferior. All this often pressures people to find comfort in concentrating on wanting to express their uniqueness as a way of dealing with what they experience as harsh reality. Perhaps there is some comfort for self in putting the focus on what one believes is his/her own uniqueness.

The explanation for John’s downplaying of his own importance is to be found in the words which Mark attributed to him: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1, 8). These are words which more appropriately belong to those who wrote the books of the New Testament. They understood the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of a God who was full of surprises, who was able to inspire Jews, slaves, free people and Gentiles to live and worship side by side in the early Christian community. Diversity came to be accepted as a sign of God’s Spirit at work. Competition and jealous comparison evaporated.

So, in Mark’s perception, John was able to understand his role and task as different from but complementary to the role and task of Jesus. That enabled him to speak the truth about his own role and the role of Jesus in the same breath. Jesus saw himself as the ambassador of God’s love, mercy and compassion. Competition and comparison were foreign to his way of acting. Surely that rubbed off on John.

And that’s a significant message for us to take from today’s readings. We are challenged to welcome and encourage the gifts that others have to offer, even if they overshadow us and our gifts. That means letting go of any desire to draw attention to our own uniqueness or to be seen as special. If we can bring ourselves to do that, we might be able to recognize and welcome somebody like Jesus whenever he or she comes into our life. That, of course, is one of the challenges of Advent: to recognise Jesus who comes to us every day in the people we encounter.