by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Using words that gave them strength, words that put heart into them, John preached the good news to the people. Luke 3, 10-18
Advent is essentially a period for readying ourselves to reflect on the significance of how God’s promise for us and our world was fulfilled in the person of Jesus, born into the world in the same way as you and I were born. The birth of Jesus was confirmation of God’s fidelity to the divine promises articulated by prophets over centuries. Over more than 2000 years since then, there have been countless Christians who have testified to God’s ongoing trustworthiness, presence and self-revelation in the very ordinary circumstances of our lives. As the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins expressed it: “Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his to the Father through the features of men’s faces” (G. M. Hopkins, As Kingfishers Catch Fire).
The prophet Isaiah had said as much more than seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus: “Seek God while God is still near, call to God while God is close at hand” (Isaiah 55, 5-6). And in today’s reading from Philippians, we hear part of what Paul had written from prison: “The Lord is near. Dismiss all anxiety from your minds. Present your needs to God in every form of prayer…(Philippians 4, 5-6). Paul was so conscious of God’s presence in the circumstances of his life, that he wanted to share it with the people of Philippi among whom he had lived and worked. So, he urged them to rejoice, as if they had the same consciousness of God’s close presence in their lives. However, while we can admire Paul’s enthusiasm in sharing his experience, we just don’t know the impact his message had on his audience. We do know, however, that directions to us like “Rejoice!”, “Be positive!”, “Snap out of it!” and “Don’t be anxious!” generally have little impact. The emotional experiences of others are generally not contagious. Simply telling me that God is near, doesn’t necessarily mean that I will feel God’s nearness. But it might start me on the way of trusting enough to take my anxieties, troubles and concerns to God. And we all know that there are times in our lives when our faith in God struggles, when it waxes and wanes. And, as a result, we don’t approach God with boundless faith.
The message in today’s first reading is out of character with the prophet who wrote it. His prophecy is full of gloom and doom, with his predictions of the “day of the Lord” promising a disastrous experience for the people of Israel and Judah. His audience was people who had been carried into exile where they were forced to live with foreigners whose language, customs and religion had not the slightest similarity to theirs. And yet, quite uncharacteristically he talks of God singing to them an infectious song of promise: “So sing, Daughter of Zion! Raise the rafters, Israel! Daughter Jerusalem, be happy! Celebrate! God has reversed his judgements against you and sent your enemies off, chasing their tails…There’s nothing to fear from evil ever again!…Don’t be afraid, dear Zion, don’t despair. Your God is present among you…The accumulated sorrows of your exile will dissipate. I, your God, will get rid of them for you” (Zephaniah, 3, 14-18). While these words of Zephaniah were not a magic wand, they were words of hope and encouragement to a people down on their uppers.
The hope in all this for us is that, despite our personal wavering, we known deep down that we can trust in a God to whom we can bring our brokenness, our doubts and our questions, confident that we will find some consolation even if we don’t immediately get the answers we want. For God’s people, the promise that Zephaniah offered was long in coming. It was delivered when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. We refer to that as the Incarnation, God coming among us in human flesh, in the person of Jesus. But the Incarnation is an ongoing event, and God is here to stay, abiding in creation and in the depths of the human heart, and to be encountered in everyone we meet.
And that brings us to today’s gospel-reading. We have all behaved in ways that leave us feeling guilty. We have been less than we want to be. To participate in today’s gospel-reading, rather than just hear it from the side-lines, means joining with those whom John called to a change of heart and asking: “What must we do then?”
While we know deep in our hearts that the answer is to live with integrity, it is essential that we stop, from time to time, to spell out for ourselves what that looks like in practice. Way back in the middle of last century, a German theologian and psychologist, Josef Goldbrunner, wrote a book called Holiness is Wholeness. It was based on Carl Jung’s psychology that posited that we all have a deep desire to be truly at home with ourselves. In the long run, that comes down to growing into our true selves, to being the persons that God is inviting us to be. That’s what wholesomeness or holiness means.
Perhaps that’s best illustrated in a story. A medical doctor, Victoria Sweet, volunteered to spend two months of her time at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco. It’s a medical centre that caters specifically for the homeless and the destitute. Dr Sweet came for two months and stayed twenty years. She recorded her reflections on that long experience in a delightful book entitled God’s Hotel: A Doctor, A Hospital and a Pilgrimage to the Heart of Medicine. In one of her anecdotes, she tells of a colleague who worked with stroke patients. One day, while he was doing his rounds, he came across a man who had been ready for discharge months earlier. However, the man was still in a wheelchair, even though he was able to walk. “Why are you still here, Bill?”, the doctor asked. “No shoes!” came the reply, “They’ve been ordered, Doc, but still waiting for insurance to approve them.” “How long have you been waiting”, the doctor asked. “Three months” said Bill. “What size do you wear?” asked the doctor. “Nines”, said Bill. The doctor turned on his heels and was back within 30 minutes with a pair of size nine running shoes. On the way back into the ward, he ran into Dr Sweet who asked him what he was doing with a pair of runners. He gave her a quick explanation, went and put the new shoes on Bill’s feet, and filled in the discharge form.
On reflecting on the incident, Dr Sweet commented that it would never have occurred to her to do what her colleague had done for Bill. It gave her an understanding of an aphorism that had puzzled her for decades: The secret in the care of the patient is in caring for the patient. The doctor who bought the shoes for Bill, understood that Bill was his brother, that patients are people deserving respect.
John the Baptist’s repentance (conversion of heart) goes hand-in-hand with just, compassionate and merciful action. The first step in that direction lies in telling the truth about ourselves. That prepares the way for the kind of action the Baptist called for. Saying “We have Abraham as our father” is a bit like producing our Baptism Certificate as proof of our Christianity. Practicing daily conversion means doing whatever is reasonable to makes things right in our work, relationships and lives.