Homily for Second Sunday of Advent
December 4, 2005
St. Agnes, Cincinnati
Based on Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8)
“Comfort, give comfort to me people,” says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end.”
As these words were being proclaimed by someone from the following of Isaiah some five centuries before the coming of Jesus, what was the situation of those who were receiving his message?
First of all, they are not in Jerusalem, their holy city. They are exiles, refugees in Babylon. Jerusalem has actually been captured and destroyed. The Israelites had tried to ward off disaster by entering into alliances with Babylon, and now she has turned on them and deported them. Everything that had been foretold by the earlier prophets in the name of Yahweh has come to pass.
We cannot appreciate the power of this prophecy of consolation if we do not allow ourselves to identify with the Israelites as they hunger and thirst for their liberation.
It all appears futile, as we read in verses right in the middle of this very passage, which the church dropped in selecting this prophecy for today’s liturgy:
A voice says, “Cry out!”
I answer, “What shall I cry out?”
“All humankind is grass,
and all their glory like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower wilts,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it. (Vv. 6-7)
It’s all so fragile. It all withers, it all passes away. All of our efforts are doomed to fail. A difficult message.
We must be real about where we are, as a church and as a world, if we are to receive the promise of consolation from our God. There is no ‘generic Advent.’ Each Advent is different because the situation into which the Lord comes is different. This Advent is different from last year’s.
We are a wounded church within a wounded world.
We know the pain and shame of the continuing story of sexual misconduct in our church. (Most of you know that I am from Philadelphia, which has been battered these past few months. As a sign of how things stand, the media reported that a priest went into a supermarket to buy some groceries. He was wearing his Roman collar. A total stranger came up to him and spit on him, yelling, “You faggot!”) We face a future with ever fewer priests and the inability of our people to have access to the Eucharist. And when bishops from around the world gathered for three weeks with the Holy Father to reflect on the Eucharist, with the exception of a few outspoken bishops, they seem to have been unable even to imagine the seriousness of our crisis, simply settling for the status quo.
As a nation we are bogged down losing more lives each day in a war we initiated, with no evident plan to bring it to an end.
Our trust in our leaders, on all sides, erodes more each day.
And world leaders can’t summon the political will to intervene in the genocide going on in Darfur, or mobilize the world to aid people freezing on the mountainsides in Pakistan. We pledge a paltry sum to contain the ravages of the world pandemic of AIDS, and then we don’t even follow through on our commitment.
Truly we are in the wilderness.
But the word of comfort, of consolation, is that it is precisely in the wilderness that the powerful word of the Lord comes to us. Throughout Scripture, if the wilderness is the place of testing, it is also the place where the Lord speaks to his beloved. Jesus himself is tested in the wilderness but he also finds there the support to go forth on his mission. It is precisely to us in exile from Jerusalem that our God is near. Listen:
Go up onto a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
Cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:
Here is your God!
The Lord tells the prophet to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Speak tenderly. The Hebrew expression really means “speak to her heart.” And if we are to hear the word, we must listen to it with our hearts, not just with our ears.
For Isaiah the word of the Lord is power. It accomplishes what it promises. He says, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (v. 5) And in verse 7: “Thought the grass withers and the flower wilts, the word of our God stands forever.”
John the Baptist’s message is that he is proclaiming “the powerful one, one more powerful than I.” A way will be cleared; a highway will be opened; Whole mountains will be leveled — whether those mountains are the obstacles in our own personal lives or in our church or in the world. Whatever those mountains are.
A way will be cleared because Jesus the Christ is the Way. Remember, years before the follower of Jesus were ever called “Christians,” what were they called by those who lived alongside them? “The people of the way.”
As we move deeper into the mystery of this Advent we must tell the Lord of our exile and our hunger. We must stay in the wilderness and call out our need once more for a home at peace — in our world and in our church.
The one we look forward to meeting at Christmas is not some Hallmark cheerleader, the mirror of our rah! Rah! American boosterism. The God we meet at the stable is a refugee, not a sugarplum. His mother becomes the first Christian by saying yes in obedience to a mystery that is beyond her capacity to understand. And when she prays it is not the piety coming from some plaster statue. She tells us that “he will pull down the mighty from their thrones and send the rich away empty.”
And so the word of the prophet ends with the message that echoes ceaselessly all through the Scriptures: “Do not be afraid! Fear not!” Even in the heart of the wilderness, in the midst of the furnace, we can be consoled. Because the Lord is near, nearer to us than we are to ourselves.