Sunday, December 6, 2020

Reflections on the second Sunday of Advent


Sometimes you can clearly perceive a theme in the readings of the day. For us today, that theme is quite easy to define, for it is the first word that we encounter in the reading from Isaiah: “comfort.” We also encounter comfort at the end of this reading, when we are assured that the strong-armed shepherd God will gather us in his arms, carrying us in his bosom, and lead with care. And finally, in the Gospel too we have a sentiment of comfort in the message that John the Baptist bears, there is one worthier who is coming, and “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”


If we look closer, however, we realise that the comfort that we are being promised is most certainly NOT the cosy comfort of the commercialised Christmas seasons we are offered. On the contrary, it is a comfort that is entirely unlike the warm, cuddly Christmases we sing about.

To appreciate the comfort promised, we need to pay attention to John the Baptist, the biblical actor offered us today as a model, and the meaning of the symbols used in the readings for today, and especially in the Gospel. John the Baptist, it says, appeared in “the desert”, and not just that, he eats desert food – locusts, and wild honey.  More importantly, John is fulfilling the prophesies of Isaiah and the prophesy is quite clear about what John, and consequently, what we too, must do: “in the desert prepare the way of the Lord!”

It is only if we do this, that the promised comfort will be ours. If not, we need only reference Peter’s letter which is quite explicit about the fiery ways in which we, the unrepentant, will perish.

And so, to benefit from the promised comfort, it is to the desert we must go – that place of waiting, the antechamber as it were, where the Jews were purified before entering the Promised land, and where we too must go while we await salvation. We commonly treat advent like it were already Christmas season. But in fact it is the waiting room to Christmas, the desert where we ritually await the coming of the infant king. It is a ritual that opens our eyes to the fact that our own lives are suspended between two comings. The first coming of the king in Bethlehem, and His second coming at the end of time, which Peter promises us will be terrible. Suspended in this way, we are also like the Baptist who we have to emulate: St. Augustine tells us that “The prophets before John were given the grace to foretell the coming of Christ, but to John it was given both to foretell Him in his absence, and to behold Him in His presence.” There is no doubt that Christ is present with us in the blessed sacrament, but we nevertheless also do wait to see him in flesh and bone and await His final coming.

And so, what do we do in this time of waiting? The prophesy of Isaiah is quite clear, we turn the world upside down, we fill in valleys, we lower hills, we ensure that, in the words of the psalm, that when He comes, “Justice shall walk before him” because we will have, as in the words of the psalm prepared the way of his steps. And this preparation is hard work, because though we don’t get that sense in this translation of the scripture, other translations suggest that what we have read as “prepare the way of the Lord” is “beat straight the road”  referring to the tiring, backbreaking work of preparing a new road, by literally pounding it.

John also offers us a superficially discomforting vision of what the beating of this road will be. “One mightier than I is coming after me” he says. And what happens to him when Christ appears? He is thrown into jail, and beheaded. This fate, this after, is similarly experienced by Jesus, who is arrested, tortured and crucified, the apostles, and so many of the early Christians. And yet, the resurrection of Jesus offers us the comfort to this apparent discomfort. We know for a fact that this straight and narrow path of material discomfort ends not in death, but in the promise of the resurrection and life ever-lasting.

Our comfort, this season, and in the rest of our Christian lives, must be that we know that He is coming, that we have been called to prepare the way before Him, and that through our works we will be ready to greet Him when He comes.

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