One of the opportunities I have as Assistant Director of Certification for Ecclesial Ministry and Service at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), is to record video reflections on the readings of the Scriptures proclaimed at daily Mass. I do so as part of larger group of colleagues at the Conference, along with lay and ordained leaders from around the country. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of the readings for the life of faith today and to share them here, along with the written text of the reflections. To view these video reflections for past and upcoming celebrations of the Eucharist, visit the USCCB website.
Reflections on the Word | Saturday, 2nd Week of Advent | December 15, 2018
The first song in the musical “Godspell,” based on the Gospel according to Matthew, is a well-known one. It is John the Baptist crying out “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” This saint and his call for us to be prepared is what I like to call the North Star of Advent – our guiding focus for everything we as a church proclaim and celebrate in these weeks before Christmas.
Before there is the star in the East which in Matthew’s account guides the Magi to Christ, there is the burning desert sun of St. John the Baptist preaching preparation and repentance.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus recognizes in John the Baptist the spiritual return of the prophet Elijah – one of ancient Israel’s greatest prophets, whose resume is highlighted in the first reading from the book of Sirach. And it is not a resume of subtlety!
This prophet of God was one of the most intense of all the prophets. A zealous defender of the Jewish faith in the midst of what he saw as the corruption of kings and rulers, he was no shrinking violet. He not only spoke against false prophets and corrupt leaders, his words were like fire which consumed them; he shattered their leadership (symbolized by the staff) by his testimony and he called down fire from heaven to prove that the Lord God was real and the pagan gods were not. And at the end of his life, the legend was that he was taken into heaven by a fiery chariot!
There was nothing subtle about this man!
Nor was there anything subtle about his suffering. Elijah endured great hardship throughout his ministry – often having to flee for his life from kings, queens and leaders he denounced for their corruption. The occupational hazard of a prophet: when you speak hard truth to people who don’t want to hear it, sinful nature often takes hold and they don’t want to hear it and will try to destroy you.
While Elijah escaped, that was not the case with John the Baptist, who was imprisoned and then beheaded by King Herod after John denounced him for his corruption. The parallels between Elijah and John – who both had to spend a lot of time in the wilderness desert – are presented together to enhance their common message of justice – and Jesus himself in the Gospel reminds us that he himself will share their fate – to be rejected by those in political authority and many of the religious authorities of his day and also brutalized and executed as an enemy of the Roman state. Based on Matthew’s Gospel Jesus’ already knew of this from his early life – The Holy Family were political refugees from because King Herod wanted to destroy the child he saw as a threat to his kingdom.
Ten days before Christmas – more than halfway through Advent – we’re reminded that God’s coming is not only about beautiful creches and singing angles – and even less about the gluttonous consumerism with which we are assaulted by corporations and advertisers.
We are reminded that God’s coming brings mercy and justice for the poor and oppressed – a hallmark of Elijah’s and John’s and Jesus’ preaching. The coming of God’s kingdom means that the corrupt kingdoms of earth must give way – whether those metaphorical kingdoms are at the heights of political power or the depths of our own hearts – where sin works to extinguish the flame of God’s justice which burns away irrelevancies and seeks to purify us.
Preparing the way of the Lord is an Advent invitation to not forget that the work of transforming and healing an unjust world is never easy and overcoming our own sinfulness and brokenness is a life-long journey. But Advent is also a hopeful time – because it is also a reminder that the God who loved us so much as to become one of us, has endured that suffering with us and is the victor over corruption, sin and death.
Ten days before Christmas, we are reminded – in the words of the psalm – to turn towards the face of God – and see the one who comes in power to set us free and to save us. Challenging news – but also Good News – Godspell – Gospel! Let us pray to see the ways we are called to prepare God’s way in our hearts and our world.
God give you peace!