Bearing the Word
Second Sunday of Advent. Fr Gregory Murphy reflects on Advent as a time of return and renewal.
Baruch brings a message of reconciliation and hope to the Jewish communities of the Greek-speaking Middle East at a time in which for them exile had become permanent. Even those returning to Jerusalem could not but have been aware that the Land of the Covenant was ruled by pagan Gentiles, first the Greeks, later the Romans. Baruch tells us of the renewal of Jerusalem, when her children will be brought back, overcoming every obstacle, to the presence of God on his holy mountain. As for them, so for us. We too, in our time, are exiles, uneasily aware of all that separates us from the God who comes to us, to free us from our self-induced bondage of sin. Like Baruch’s audience, we await God’s saving action breaking into our lives.
St Luke gives us a picture of the irruption of God into history. He partially but accurately reconstructs the political arrangement of Palestine at the time of John. The rulers of the earth are in their places. Then, after this description of the political establishment, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” Something new begins, done by God. Although the rulers remain ignorant–for now–they are to be fundamentally challenged, albeit in a non-political manner, by this new thing that begins with John the Baptist. The word of God, Luke tells us, comes upon John, evoking the call of Jeremiah, and the experiences of the Spirit of God coming upon a person in the Old Testament. John’s preaching of a baptism of conversion or repentance again connects him with the great prophets of Israel who called the people back from their alienation from and rebellion against God, to resituate their lives in living out God’s commandments. This call for repentance is reiterated in Jesus’ ministry, emphasising the continuing relevance of John’s preaching. John, the last and greatest of the prophets, is the forerunner of the incarnate Word (and of the Church), preaching God’s forgiveness and the salvation of all people. In the words of his father’s great hymn of praise John will ‘make known to his people their salvation through forgiveness of all their sins.’ John calls us back to God, and points us to Jesus, who forgives our sins and guides us into the way of peace.
John reminds us of the need to be prepared for the Christ who is to come so that all mankind can indeed see God’s salvation, manifest in our lives if we follow the way of peace. That means, as Paul tells the Philippians, that we must strive to improve our knowledge and deepen our perception of how with God’s help we may love each other more and more as he has shown us he loves us, working with Jesus who has begun this good work in us by bequeathing us the Spirit of his love, and hoping that he may bring it to completion. We are to remember or awake to or stir up in ourselves in this season of grace that we are to abound in an intelligent and perceptive love, doing what is needful in charity, recognizing the essential things of life; especially our love of God and our desire to love as God, prompted by his Spirit, allowing Jesus to generate through us all kinds of good deeds, so making manifest God’s mercy, showing his salvation to our world.
That might seem a tall order. But we are invited just now to step aside, be still, focus on what truly matters. We are to hear and receive the Word that we might bear it. From hearers we are to become doers of the Word, displaying God’s compassion in our lives. If this seems impossibly difficult, we might remember the other icon of Advent, with the Baptist: the young woman who was told by the angel that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would cover her with its shadow. For nothing is impossible to God, even making saints out of such unlikely characters as ourselves, if only we would listen to his Word, respond to his call, enter his embrace.