Comfort My People

On the Second Sunday of Advent, we are granted a wonderful burst of hope in the readings for the Eucharist. This hope is revisited each year during this season to give the proper perspective to the coming celebration of the Feast of the Nativity. On the First Sunday, we heard of the insoluble pit of despair in which the Old People of God found themselves.

Today, we listen to the hope in God’s words in the reading from Isaiah: “Here with power comes the Lord God.” This echoes the promises that began during the Exile and were repeated again and again during the years that followed. They got more and more specific so that: “A voice cries out: in the desert prepare the way of the Lord.”

The mention of “a voice” brings the image of God’s wave of change as it comes for the whole of Israel, down to a single individual. The desert itself serves as a particularly good illustration of the situation in which the Jewish people found themselves at the time and it fits the situation in which we find ourselves now.

No matter what God has achieved in Jesus Christ and his Church in the last two thousand years, the desert lies in the heart of man and a voice needs to call us to conversion – right now, today, this year. There is no passivity in Catholicism. In the Psalm, the inspired singer says: “Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him, glory dwelling in our land.” Note: There is an active component in our behavior where we choose to cooperate with God’s grace. Being God-fearing takes effort on our part.

John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1515 [Louvre, Paris]

With the coming of the fear of God: “Kindness and truth shall meet; justice and peace shall kiss. Truth shall spring out of the earth, and justice shall look down from heaven.” All this tends to come only in flashes, because this is still not the Kingdom. But it is enough to show us what is possible. The Old Testament describes the schooling of God’s people, which is why it is still relevant and why we hold the Jewish people in such deep respect. The pedagogy is the same now for us as it was thousands of years ago.

Advent, like the other liturgical seasons, is a special time of pedagogy. The greatest disservice that we can do to our children is to let them think that religious learning stops with Confirmation. It makes learning to be a religious teenager that much more difficult. And it makes it even more difficult to go to Marriage training and training to be a Catholic businesswoman and training for Catholic aging, and so on.

This is relevant in the proper appreciation of Peter’s message in the Second Reading, where he says things such as: “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” And he reminds us that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief.” We are talking about two days of the Lord: the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh and the Second Coming when the Lord comes in judgment. The phrasing reminds us that we live in a dynamic situation. We are being schooled for a richer and fuller life, almost despite ourselves.

But we still are responsible. Peter again: “Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” How is that as a target to aim for over the whole course of a human life? In this little segment of his letter, Peter concludes: “be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”

In the dynamic moral situation of life, that was sketched out for us in the experience of the Jewish people and in the Letter of Peter, we have learned again where our responsibilities lie. We cannot blame anyone else if we do not know or care about them.

Then, in the Gospel, we hear that “John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John was announcing the way to be without spot or blemish. It is interesting how much of John’s preaching was picked up by Jesus – which is why John is called the predecessor to Jesus. He was preparing the way. We go through the same experience when we meet John-the-Baptist figures in our own lives.

One of features of such figures is the hope that they radiate. In the Gospel, John announced: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

This is the wonder that is celebrated at Christmas. The one who is to come will baptize us with the Spirit of God. Is there anything more wondrous?