As usual you can listen to the homily here.
What’s it like when someone is not speaking to you? What is it like when having gotten so used to hearing from someone and then they just cut you off? No word, just silence. God had not spoken to the Jews, there had not been a prophet , for 500 years! 500 years of silence! Think about that. Then comes John, dressed in camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey proclaiming a message from God. Camel hair cannot have been very comfortable nor was living out among the rocks of the desert. A few years ago on pilgrimage in Assisi we met an Italian man dressed in sackcloth and going bare foot. He seemed to be genuine and not just a bit ‘gone in the head’. What would we make of someone were they to dress that way here? What a strange sight John the Baptist would make even to us Catholics. Would we laugh him at or even refer him to psychiatric services not because he was odd or mad but because he just does not fit into our categories of acceptable behaviour?
For the Jews it was a time of great expectation and ferment and there were movements seeking holiness and reform as well as political change. Yet John does not go into the towns and villages. Instead he preaches out in the desert of Judea. Not that the desert is all that far away but in the minds of the people it was a place for bandits, wild animals and demons. By going to the desert John separated himself from the official Jewish religion and the Temple – he stood outside the State and over against the accepted ways of doing things. John points back to the earlier prophets and their call to holiness. By going out into the desert John aligns himself with Elijah, the greatest of the prophets. He is engaging in spiritual warfare. John, an only son and member of a priestly family, has turned is back on comfort and respectability in order to follow his calling to be the forerunner of Christ, someone totally dedicated to God and attentive to His will. He gives up all in order to do God’s will and prepare the way for Christ. Remember our Lord said that there was no one born of woman greater than John. Christ was born not of human will but God’s.
His food was locusts and wild honey. Nourishing food but not easy to get as you will know if you’ve ever tried to catch a grasshopper (it does not say whether they were eaten raw or cooked) and wild honey is always protected by wild bees. He is cut off and set apart from the comforts of civilization and so dependent on what God provides through nature. This separateness means he has the space and time to listen to God’s voice in his heart. After 500 years God is once more speaking to the Jews, His Bride, His people. For them and for us it is a call to prepare for the coming of Christ through repentance, change and conversion of life.
John openly and humbly declares his subservience to our Lord. When he says “I am not worthy to carry his sandals” he means he is unworthy to be the lowest of the lowest of the servants, literally the slaves, of Christ. This shows his humility and his faith. It is because of his humility and faith that God enlightens John about Christ. John knows that what he does is only a foretaste of the work of the Lord. Christ will take the symbolic water baptism and transform it into a giving of the Holy Spirit and the means of salvation. He will wash away not just bodily dirt but the contamination of sin. God in Christ will use baptism to immerse us into the communion between the Father and the Son. Through baptism He unites us to Himself. More than that Christ will clear the threshing floor of creation and gather his wheat, His faithful, into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. He will separate sheep from goats, wheat from chaff, the good from the bad and those who do not belong to Him He will destroy. The people of faith heard John’s message and responded to it and it is still the same today. By faith and by humble obedience we can draw down God’s mercy on ourselves and our families.
John did not mince his words. Those who claim to be religious, to be servants of God but who do not do God’s will, who do not seek to be truly holy and good are like poisonous snakes!
From the voice of God in his heart John gets his message: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” To repent means literally to rethink our route and do a u-turn, to reverse one’s course and go back to a better way. Why? Because God’s Kingdom, His Lordship and long promised, direct governance of man is close. How do we repent? We ask for the grace and we examine our conscience. Every Catholic serious about their faith should do this every day: to pray for the grace of sincere repentance and sorrow for sin and to examine one’s conscience. There are many ways to do it but to put it simply we look at our day and how we have treated God and our neighbour. We also need to inform our conscience by learning our faith and not assuming we already know all we need to!
We are to produce the good fruit of good works as evidence of our repentance. Here is the heart of our Gospel. If you are truly sorry for your sins then show it by your behaviour – change and do good! Advent is not about cleaning the house for Christmas and putting up decorations, still less about shopping. It is about preparing the way of the Lord so that we will be ready to receive Him when He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We must produce good fruit to present to Him. We cannot appeal to the good our parents or our ancestors did. We cannot appeal that Ireland is the land of saints and scholars if it ever really was. God has no national favourites. He does not love one people more than another, nor one person more than another. God loves us all but He shows His mercy to those who repent of their wrong-doing and do His will. God does not need us. He created us out of His own goodness and love and saved us through His Mercy. Indeed Christ has raised us up, for our ancestors were pagans and now we are to know and do God’s will. We would be spiritually dead but through baptism He has given us life. Not only are we children of Abraham, spiritual Jews, we are more importantly, children of God. Yet even more than that we are, in Christ, Sons to the Father for He has granted us this gift that we are to the Father as the Son is to Him. This great, unexpected, unasked for, unmerited gift demands a great response. God demands that we listen to Him. He demands good deeds from us, deeds that show our love for Him, that share with others His love and mercy towards us. He demands that if we are to enjoy being sons to Him we ought to behave as His Son to others.