Sunday, December 10, 2017

CRY OUT LIKE A VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS a homily for the Second Sunday of Advent Year B (Mark 1:1–8)

            We take water for granted.  Israel is a lot drier than Ireland.  In fact the real dispute in between Israelis and the Palestinians is not so much over land but over access to and control of water.  All over Israel, wherever they dig, archaeologists find different types of ancient water stores.  There are cisterns for drinking water and baths for washing and there is a third kind.  That kind is not for drinking from for the water was often stagnant.  For the same reason one did not swim in them though there are steps down into them.  The capacity of some of the smaller kind was over 14,000 litres of water.  These tanks or baths were used for the ritual cleansing demanded by the Jewish religion of the time.  They were always cut from the rock and were covered so that they were dark and cold.  They are so common that it is obvious that the Jews of the time of our Lord took religious purity very seriously.  So why then do they flock to be baptized by John in the Jordan?
            John is something of a paradox.  The Jewish Temple priesthood was hereditary and John is from a priestly family.   He is a descendant of Aaron, the brother of Moses, first of the Jewish priests.   (If you have Cohens or Levis in your family tree you too are such a descendant).   Yet he is not living a priestly life. He does not take his turn in the Temple but lives in the wilderness, the hot, rocky emptiness beyond the Jordan.  He lives on wild honey and insects, food allowed by the Jewish Law, but not easy to get nor very filling.  He must've been very thin and wiry, sun-browned and wild-looking.  He wears a rough camel hair garment, his hair of his head and his face is uncut.  What an extraordinary sight he must've made.  In addition, Israel, the Jews, have not seen or heard of a prophet in about five hundred years.  All that time God has been silent.  Then John appears from the wilderness dressed as a prophet like Elijah, living an austere life and proclaiming the need for repentance, for straitening the route for God's grace into our lives and administering baptism to that end.

            John's baptism was symbolic, a sign of desire for real purity.  By baptizing in a river rather than a pool or tank he is pointing to the living power that is come with Christ, a power that is not stagnant like human power.
            John is the last of the prophets of the Old Testament and a saint of the New Testament.   His clothing is that of a prophet and his message is that we repent, that is, we literally change our mind, our way of thinking and return to the Lord's way.   By refusing to be a priest of the Temple John is pointing forward to the new priesthood established by Christ and the new sacrifice He will make that is the Mass.  John speaks of himself as a slave so low that it is not proper for him even to touch the least part of Christ's sandal.  John, like all the saints, points beyond himself to Jesus Who is the fulfillment of all God's promises and more.

            As Tertullian, an early Christian wrote: John calls us to purge our minds of whatever impurity error has imparted, whatever contamination ignorance has brought, which repentance would sweep and scour away, and cast out.  So prepare the home of your heart by making it clean for the Holy Spirit.
            As St Gregory Nazianzus wrote: "Moses baptized, but in water, in the cloud and in the sea; but this he did figuratively. John also baptized, not indeed in the rite of the Jews, not solely in water, but also for the remission of sins; yet not in an entirely spiritual manner, for he had not added: “in the Spirit.” Jesus baptized, but in the Spirit; and this is perfection. There is also a fourth baptism, which is wrought by martyrdom and blood, in which Christ himself was also baptized, which is far more venerable than the others, in as much as it is not soiled by repeated contagion. There is yet a fifth, but more laborious, (a baptism) by tears; with which David each night bedewed his bed, washing his couch with tears".
            How many times have we looked forward to Christmas and something has gone wrong.  How often have disagreements marred our celebrations?  How often have we eaten or drunk too much?  How often has it just been a bit of a disappointment?  For some of us Christmas is a reminder of bad and painful times.  For many it is a reminder of loved ones who have died.  To get the real meaning of Christmas it is necessary not to stock up on food and drink but to stock up on grace.  It is necessary to approach the Birth of Christ by the royal road of Advent.  That is why the priest wears purple, the ancient colour of royalty. 
            To live Advent we need to join John in the wilderness.  I don't mean eating insects by the way though I would not object to honey.  John is a model for us.  The wilderness represents the stripped down space of prayer and quiet.  We need to remove the non-necessities.  We have to make space for God.  In John we see and hear the call to reduce our dependence on the things of this world to the minimum so that we have more time for God and our neighbour.  John's path is one of penance and repentance. 
            We are to acknowledge our sins and seek out Christ in Confession, repenting of them and asking His mercy.  We are to make sacrifices, however small, and unite them with Christ's infinite sacrifice in the Mass.  By these simple means we can open our hearts to really greet Christ at Christmas, to run out to meet Him with the good works we have done, to greet Him with joyful faith not shallow sentimentality and to find that in seeking Him we have found the power to love those around us and discovered the real meaning of Christmas.

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