by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea, saying: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 3, 1-12
As we edge closer to Christmas, we begin thinking about all those to whom we are going to send a Christmas message through snail mail or email, Twitter or Facebook. Could you see yourself putting together a Christmas message with a graphic of John the Baptist at the centre, and underneath a personal greeting: “Dear Bill & Margaret & Family, My thoughts and prayers are with you, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus into our lives; Clean up your act, you brood of vipers, and behave as though you understand what Christmas is all about”?
Well, that’s the kind of message with which John the Baptist confronts us in the gospel-reading of this second Sunday of Advent. It’s quite possible that the bustle associated with the end of the calendar year and the commercialism of Christmas shopping might shield us from seeing that the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke all preface the Christmas story with John the Baptist and his confronting, destabilising message. However, the only authentic way to understand the true meaning of what occurred in that manger in Bethlehem is to face up to John and digest his message. To ignore the Baptist is to block out the truth.
We’re all getting excited, in anticipation of celebrating the fact that God became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ, born like one of us, but in the unhygienic surrounds of a cattle shed, and then wrapped up in something warm and placed in a feed bin for the animals. Blocking our way is an eccentric, ranting prophet who is not about to take a backward step. He lets loose at us and anyone else smugly satisfied with their life style, in the same way as he did at the Pharisees and Sadducees: “Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming retribution? What makes you think you’re special? There are no short-cuts to repentance and change of heart!”
So, we’re having our cages rattled a bit and being challenged to reflect on how we might have slipped into a comfortable zone of spiritual lethargy. We might be physically exhausted from a hectic year but may have let ourselves slip into neutral when it comes to prayer, reflection and change of heart. The sin of settlement is a reality to which we are all vulnerable. Moreover, our political leaders are so predictably trapped in self-interest that we can switch them off and lull ourselves into dangerous disinterest. Their inability to engage us helps to reinforce our lethargy in other aspects of our lives.
History does repeat itself, and something like that happened among the Jews and Christians of Europe between the two great world wars. Christians allowed themselves to become deaf and blind to the moral dangers of Nazism and the Jews failed to grasp the significance of the mounting threat to their physical and material security. Both were paralysed by fear and inertia. One group was afraid to raise their voices in protest, while the other was afraid of dislocation.
The famed, but controversial, psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim (of Austrian Jewish origin) won recognition for a book entitled The Uses of Enchantment (1976). It is essentially about the importance of fairy tales in a child’s development. Bettelheim argued that fairy tales make a vital contribution to a child’s healthy emotional development, assisting the child to process feelings like anxiety and fear, that could become problematic in later stages of development. After his death, Bettelheim was accused of plagiarising the work of Drs Julius Heuscher and Alan Dundes. Heuscher magnanimously commented: “We all plagiarise…I’m not sure whether it came out of my own brain or if it came from somewhere else…I’m only happy that I would have influenced Bruno Bettelheim…Poor Bruno Bettleheim. I would not want to disturb his eternal peace with this.” However, Bettelheim’s first published book was The Informed Heart (1960), in which he writes of his arrest in 1938 for being a dissident, and critic of the growing German threat against the European Jews. He had been urging his fellow Jews to emigrate if they wanted to save their lives. He and other young men like him had tried to warn the Jews in Germany that terror and destruction was almost on their doorsteps. Their elders however replied that they were well settled and could not leave their homes and possessions behind. Bettelheim and many of his peers were released from Dachau as a birthday gesture by Hitler, just before the start of World War II. Most of those young people fled Germany immediately. Their elders were soon swallowed up by the Nazi terror.
Bettelheim’s pleas of urgency echoed the challenges and warnings of John the Baptist in today’s gospel reading. Only we will decide whether or not we respond to John’s challenge to let go of any hesitation to change or reluctance forego our false comfort or lethargy. We all know what exactly is blocking our freedom; we all know what it is to which we are addicted – work, cell-phone, computer, watching pornography, jogging, an unhealthy relationship – and we all can create reasons for holding on to those dependencies. The Baptist calls us to acknowledge what holds us back and to find the necessary courage, and trust in God to break the bonds.
The flip side of today’s gospel message is that we are also being challenged to imitate John the Baptist. At Baptism, we were anointed to be prophets – not in the sense of foretelling the future or threatening doom and destruction, but in proclaiming the truth in word and action. To be a prophet is to witness with courage and credibility that God is very much alive and active in our lives and in our world, that God is present in our places of work, in our homes, in our parish communities, in our neighbourhoods and in our places of rest, relaxation and entertainment. A prophet’s success is not measured by the numbers who come as disciples or by the applause of the audience, but in our fidelity to doing what we know is right, by the passion we have for justice, and by our readiness to speak the truth, irrespective of who our audience happens to be.
If Pope Francis is right in stating that what we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas is “our encounter with God who was born in the poverty of the stable of Bethlehem in order to teach us the power of humility” (address to the Vatican curia, December 2014), then we might find within ourselves the humility to heed the call of John the Baptist and do something about it.