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Second Sunday of Advent 2023 - Homily

Loyola Alumni Chaplain Rev. William Rickle, S.J., '70, offers the Loyola alumni community his homilies for Advent 2023. These homilies will be published the Saturday before the first three Sundays this Advent season. We invite you contact Fr. Rickle for reflection and discussion

Readings: Is 40:1-5,9-11; 2 Pet 3:8-14; Mk 1:1-8

The text of the first reading from Isaiah is familiar to all of us, if only because it is so dramatically set in the three opening numbers of the Handel’s oratorio The Messiah.  The Gospel introduces John the Baptist, who will figure prominently today and next Sunday in the Advent readings.  As the Gospel makes clear, John is not just the precursor, but he is part of the Good News, a continuation of the tradition of the prophets of old and herald of the new era.  The second reading, written at the very end of the New Testament era, almost a hundred years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, struggles to explain how it is that Jesus has delayed so long in his return in power and might.  Together these readings invite us to consider the role of the prophet and the power of God.

Our understanding of prophet usually has some combination of fortune teller, unkempt and scraggily street preacher like we now see on some street corners, or a social cause martyr.  In the last case, the title of prophet is usually conferred after the person’s death; in life they are more likely known as agitators, troublemakers, or less savory appellations.   None of those images are necessarily wrong, but they are certainly inadequate.  In the first place, the prophet’s duty is to watch and listen.  To watch what is going on in the world, to listen to God, to discern what God is doing in the world.  Then his or her task is to announce to the whole world what God is doing for God’s people.  Sometimes the announcement of God’s fidelity carries with it a denunciation of human infidelity.  The message is independent of the person of the prophet.  The prophet is but a servant of the lord.

The first reading from Isaiah was written during the captivity in Babylon, when there were the first indications that the political winds were shifting in favor of the possibility of the return to Israel of the people.  The prophet saw this emergent opportunity as God working on behalf of the people.  He saw the exile as God’s way of punishing the people for their infidelities in the past.  The text itself is simply sublime poetry -- "Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated."

"Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah; Here is your God!  Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm ... like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom and leading the ewes with care."  For Isaiah the arms of God are at the same time strong and mighty, gentle, and embracing.

John the Baptizer, too, sees himself as announcing what God is doing, what God is going to do, with and for his people.  He sees that things need to be set straight between God and his people.  He announces a program of moral reform, a "clean up your act or you will pay the dire consequences" kind of platform.  He expects God to come with power, to establish justice for the poor and right order for the society at large.  His baptism is a natural, and almost universally human, symbol of cleansing of one’s interior, a purification rite, an attempt to show a return to innocence and purity.

But the message is independent of the messenger.  John expected God forcibly, with coercive and irresistible power, to establish justice, to exact punishment of those who had cheated, had lied, had accumulated wealth at the expense of the poor, had denied God’s claim on their love and their lives.  He did not expect to see God, in the form of the person Jesus, proclaim a message of forgiveness, of salvation, of eternal well-being based on the reconciliation that he was to achieve through his own death and resurrection.  That is why John sent messengers to Jesus after the latter was getting his ministry under way to ask, "Are you the one who was to come, or shall we await another?"  The kind of power that God was showing was not the kind that John had anticipated, or perhaps even wanted.  God’s strong arm was not extended in wrath but in mercy, not in punishing blows but in healing touch.

The power of God is not the coercive, arbitrary use of force to get our compliance.  It is the tender care of the shepherd, the constant offering of peace and comfort to the sinner.  However, for us to really understand this kind of power, we really do have to listen and hear John the Baptist very clearly, very well, and take it to heart.  We do have to understand ourselves as sinners, as people who have not, in fact, been entirely loyal, obedient, attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, as people who have indeed, done wrong.  We need to do that without pretexts, without making excuses, without blaming our families, our bad genetic makeup, the pressure of our peers.  We really do have to confess our sins, as distasteful and antiquarian a notion as that sounds to our post-modern ears.  If we miss that part, we miss the power of God working for us and in us, for our salvation.  We miss the message the prophet was sent to tell us.

One of the most striking images that helped bring this paradox home to me happened when I was studying in Spain forty years ago and spent Holy Week that year in Seville.  One of the most solemn processions during that week was the procession of the paso, or float, of "Jesús, Padre de Gran Poder" -- Jesus, the Father of Great Power.  It is a life size, purple robed statue of Jesus carrying the cross.  The popular religiosity had captured the great paradox.  God’s power is most operative in the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, as St. Paul said; "it is when I am weak that I am strong, in Christ Jesus my lord."  The mystery and the power of sacrificial love know no bounds.  That is the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  It was a total surprise to John the Baptist.  It is likely to come as a surprise to us when we genuinely experience it.  And this surprise may well come to us more than once in our lives.  This salvation and forgiveness business, from our point of view, is a process, a long one.

Which brings us to the point of the second reading.  The Second Letter of Peter was certainly not written by the Apostle Simon Peter, but by someone who was so secure in the Petrine tradition that he felt no compunction in using the authority of the Apostle in this letter.  The early Christian community had expected Jesus to return in glory very soon, like the day after tomorrow.  Time passed, and no trumpets.  What was going on?  Was Jesus being lazy?  Had he forgotten his promise to return?  Had he, in fact, abandoned us, too?  The writer says, in effect, "Hey, guys, you are looking through the telescope from the wrong end.  God is not being lazy or forgetful.  He is being patient -- with you.  He is giving you a chance to wake up and welcome the salvation that is being offered to you."  Still, as we have been hearing for weeks now, "the Day of the Lord will come like a thief."

God is being patient with us.  Let’s return the favor.  Advent is a time to watch, to listen, and to discern how God is calling us, what God is doing for us, and doing in us.  How does God want to come to us with his strong arm extended in mercy, in healing?  How does God want to come into the world through us, in our own thoughts, in our looking at the world with compassion, in our serving the world with our newly strengthened hands extended in mercy, in healing, in the name of Christ Jesus our Lord?

Questions for reflection and discussion

  1. Who have been the prophets in my own life story? How have I received and reacted to them?
  2. Has God shown you both power and tenderness at the same time? What was that like?
  3. What most consoled and most challenged you in these readings and reflections?

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