by Br Julian McDonald cfc
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Matthew 3: 1-12
The famed American novelist, Stephen King tells very gripping stories. He is so skilled at wring them that he has published nearly seventy horror, crime and science-fiction novels and sold over 350 million copies. He has grown wealthy on the royalties that have accrued from those novels. In addition to being a brilliant creator of stories, he’s a prominent social activist. For instance, in 2012 he called for wealthy Americans, including himself, to pay higher taxes, citing it as “a practical necessity and moral imperative that those who have received much should be obligated to pay tax in the same proportion.” Then, in 2013, following the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting (December 14, 2012) which claimed 28 lives, he called for gun owners to unite to support a ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. He argued: “These are weapons of mass destruction. When lunatics want to make war on the unarmed and unprepared, these are the weapons they use.”
In 2001, King was invited to deliver the Commencement/Graduation address to the graduating class of Vassar College, a Liberal Arts University situated in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. While he is not a member of any church, King gave an extraordinary oration which resonates with the message proclaimed by John the Baptist as reported in today’s gospel-reading from Matthew. The following is an extract from King’s address:
“What are you going to do, Vassar class of 2001? Who will be the doctors, the lawyers, the writers, the painters, the executives, the politicians? Who’s going to look around at age forty-five, surprised as hell to find himself or herself the head concierge at the Hotel Carlyle in New York and say: ‘How the hell did I wind up here?’ What will you do? Well, I’ll tell you one thing you’re not going to do, and that’s take it with you. I’m worth I don’t know how many millions of dollars. – I’m still in the Third World compared to Bill Gates, but on the whole I’m doing okay – and a couple of years ago I found out what ‘you can’t take it with you’ means. I found out while I was lying in a ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans like the branch of a tree taken down in a thunderstorm. I had a Mastercard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts Mastercard. If you find yourself in the Emergency Room with a serious heart attack, or if the doctor tells you yeah, that lump in your breast is a tumour, you can’t wave your Diners Club at it and make it go away…The man who saved my life was a volunteer paramedic…He did the things that needed to be done at the scene, and then drove me to the nearest hospital at a hundred and ten miles an hour. And while he may have an American Express Card, I doubt very much if it’s a gold one…We all know that life is ephemeral, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but an extremely valuable look at life’s simple, backstage truths: We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke. Warren Buffet? Going to go out broke. Bill Gates? Going to go out broke. Tom Hanks? Going to go out broke…Steve King? Broke. You guys? Broke. Not a crying dime. And how long in between? How long have you got to be in the chips?…Just the blink of an eye!…No matter how large your bank account, your kids will still play their music too loud when you get to be my age. No matter how many credit cards you have, sooner or later things will begin to go wrong with the only three things you have which you can really call your own: your body, your spirit and your mind. Yet for a short period. – let’s say forty years, but the merest blink in the larger course of things – you and your contemporaries will wield enormous powers…But of all the power which will shortly come into your hands. – gradually at first, but then with a speed that will take your breath away – the greatest is undoubtedly the power of compassion, the ability to give. We have enormous resources in this country, resources you yourselves will soon command, but they are only yours on loan. Only yours to give for a short time… Should you give away what you have? Of course, you should. I want you to consider making your lives one long gift to others, and why not. All you have is on loan, anyway…All that lasts is what you hand on. The rest is smoke and mirrors!” (Stephen King, Commencement Address, Vassar College, 2001)
In the gospel-reading of this Second Sunday of Advent, we hear tell of another social activist who challenged people in his part of the world more than two thousand years before Stephen King. John the Baptist was a prophet, to boot, and he suddenly appeared out of nowhere in the Judean desert. His strange diet and his unusual dress led to his being labelled as something of an eccentric. Well-versed in the Scriptures of his tradition, he became convinced that the appearance of the Messiah, long awaited by his people, was imminent. He therefore called those who came to hear him to tidy up their lives by taking seriously what their prophets had been calling them to for centuries. To welcome the Messiah in a fitting manner, they would need a change of heart. So, he called them to repentance. While some, no doubt, came out of curiosity, to get a glimpse of him, many heeded his call to prepare themselves for what John proclaimed God was about to do in their very midst. They witnessed to their readiness by stepping forward to participate in the ritual baptism that John was conducting in the waters of the River Jordan. John appealed to the hearts of those who gathered to hear him. He reminded them of the emptiness of their lives and the injustice they had cultivated by neglecting to reach out to widows, the poor and strangers. He called them to reclaim the best in their tradition. Like the other prophets before him, he spoke the truth as he saw it, without hesitation, without flinching. His call is to us, too, to open our hearts to what God has in mind for us. John was really asking his people if they were satisfied with their world and with the way in which they lived in it. Those same issues are relevant to us as we prepare in Advent to invite Jesus to be born into our lives. There are unhealthy things in our lives and our world that are of our own creation. In very different ways, both John the Baptist and Stephen King alluded to what calls for our attention. It is one thing to identify what requires attention, another thing to actually address it. However, the launching pad is to be open to a change of heart and attitude, to acknowledge that we need conversion. Advent is about asking God for assistance. To begin with, we may need to stop and ask ourselves just how satisfied we are with the life we have built for ourselves, with the world, our common home, to whose degradation we have contributed.
Social activists and prophets are effective only to the extent that we respond to their challenges. What challenges do John and Stephen give to you and me?