Sunday, December 5, 2010
John the Baptist’s proclamation in the desert
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send your Spirit that I may learn to be small like Zaccheus, small in moral stature, but also grant me strength to lift myself a little from the earth, urged by the desire to see you passing during this time of Advent, to know you and to know that you are there for me. Lord Jesus, good master, by the power of your Spirit, arouse in our hearts the desire to understand your Word that reveals the saving love of the Father.
2. Read the Word
1 In due course John the Baptist appeared; he proclaimed this message in the desert of Judaea, 2 'Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.'
3 This was the man spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said: A voice of one that cries in the desert, 'Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.'
4 This man John wore a garment made of camel-hair with a leather loin-cloth round his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judaea and the whole Jordan district made their way to him, 6 and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins.
7 But when he saw a number of Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism he said to them, 'Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the coming retribution? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance, 9 and do not presume to tell yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father," because, I tell you, God can raise children for Abraham from these stones. 10 Even now the axe is being laid to the root of the trees, so that any tree failing to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire.
11 I baptise you in water for repentance, but the one who comes after me is more powerful than I, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing-fan is in his hand; he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.'
3. A moment of silent prayer
Each one of us is full of questions in our hearts for anyone who listens to us, but above all we need to listen, knowing that it is Jesus who is speaking to us. Allow yourself to be led to your interior self where the Word echoes in all its weight of truth and love, in all its therapeutic and transforming power. Prayerful silence demands that we remain “inside”, that we stand completely at the feet of the Lord and use all our energy to listen to him alone. Stop and listen.
4. To understand the Word
a) The manner in which the plot of the passage is expressed:
In this Sunday of Advent we are presented with the figure of John the Baptist, a challenging personality, as Jesus once said about John the Baptist in describing his personality: ”What did you go out to see a reed blowing in the wind?” (Mt 1: 7). The profile of the Baptist that the liturgy puts before us is in two main sections: 3,1-6, the figure and activities of John; 3,7-12, his preaching. Within these two sections we may detect smaller matters that define the expression of this text. In 3:1-2 John is presented as the one who preaches «repentance» because «the kingdom of heaven is close at hand». This cry is like a thread running through the whole of John’s activity and is repeated in 3:8.12. The reason for this call to repentance is given as the imminent judgement of God which is compared to the cutting of every dry tree to be thrown into the fire to be burnt (3:10) and to the winnowing done by farmers on the threshing-floor to separate the wheat from the chaff which is also to be burnt in the fire (3:12). The image of fire which characterises the last part of our liturgical passage shows the urgency of preparing oneself for the coming of God’s judgement.
The text presents the following:
Matthew 3:1-3: in this first small part «the voice crying in the desert» of Isaiah 40:2 is identified with the voice of the Baptist who invites all to repentance «in the desert of Judea»;
Matthew 3:4-6: there follows a brief section which, in a picturesque manner, describes the traditional figure of John: he is a prophet and an ascetic; because of his prophetic identity he is compared to Elijah, indeed he dresses like the Thesbite prophet. A geographical and special detail describes the movement of many people who come to receive the baptism of immersion in the waters of the Jordan, in a penitential atmosphere. The influence of his prophetic activity is not limited to one place but embraces the whole region of Judea including Jerusalem and the area around the Jordan.
Matthew 3:7-10: a special group of people comes to John to receive baptism, these are the «Pharisees and Sadducees». John addresses them with harsh words that they may stop their false religiosity and pay attention to «bearing fruit» so that they may avoid a judgement of condemnation.
Matthew 3:11-12: here the meaning of the baptism in relation to repentance is made clear and especially the difference between the two baptisms and the two protagonists: the baptism of John is with water for repentance; the baptism of Jesus “the more powerful who comes after” John, is with the Spirit and fire.
b) The message of the text:
In a typical biblical-narrative style, Matthew presents the figure and activity of John the Baptist in the desert of Judea. The geographical indication is meant to situate the activity of John in the region of Judea, whereas Jesus will carry out his activity in Galilee. For Matthew, the activity of John is entirely oriented towards and subject to “the one who is to come”, the person of Jesus. Also John is presented as a great and courageous preacher who foretells the imminent judgement of God.
The message of the Baptist consists of a precise imperative, “repent” and an equally clear reason: “for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand”. Repentance is foremost in the Baptist’s preaching even though at first its content is not yet clear. In 3:8, however, the fruits of repentance are revealed to give new direction to one’s existence. Such a revelation, on the one hand, is typical of prophets who wanted to make repentance as concrete as possible through a radical detachment from whatever until now was held as valuable; on the other hand, the revelation goes beyond and means to show that repentance is a turning towards “the kingdom of heaven”, towards something new which is imminent, together with its demands and prospects. It is a matter of giving a decisive turn to life in a new direction: the “kingdom of heaven” is the foundation and gives meaning to repentance and not just any human efforts. The expression “kingdom of heaven” says that God will reveal himself to all and most powerfully. John says that this revelation of God is imminent, not distant.
The prophetic activity of John, with the characteristics of the figure of Elijah, is meant to prepare his contemporaries for the coming of God in Jesus. The motifs and images through which the figure of the Baptist is interpreted are interesting, among them the leather loin-cloth around his waist, sign of recognition of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8); the garment made of camel hair is typical of the prophet according to Zacharias 13:4. This is a direct identification between the prophet Elijah and John. This interpretation is obviously an answer of the Evangelist to the objection of the Jews of the time: how can Jesus be the Messiah, if Elijah has not yet come?
Through his prophetic activity, John succeeds in moving whole crowds just as Elijah had led back the whole people to faith in God (1 Kings 18). John’s baptism is not important because of the great crowds that come to receive it, but because it is accompanied by precise commitments of repentance. Besides, it is not a baptism that has the power to forgive sins, only the death of Jesus has this power, but it presents a new direction to give to one’s life.
Even the «Pharisees and Sadducees» come to receive it, but they come in a hypocritical spirit, with no intention of repenting. Thus they will not be able to flee God’s judgement. John’s invective towards these groups, covered in false religiosity, emphasises that the role of his baptism, if received sincerely with the decision to change one’s life, protects whoever receives it from the imminent purifying judgement of God.
How will such a decision of repentance become evident? John does not give precise indications as to content, but limits himself to showing the motive: to avoid the punitive judgement of God. We could say that the aim of repentance is God, the radical recognition of God, directing in an entirely new way one’s life to God.
Yet the «Pharisees and Sadducees» are not open to repentance in so far as they place their faith and hope in being descendants of Abraham: because they belong to the chosen people, they are certain that God, by the merits of the father, will give them salvation. John questions this false certainty of theirs by means of two images: the tree and the fire
First, the image of the tree that is felled, in the OT this refers to God’s judgement. A text from Isaiah describes it thus: «Behold the Lord, God of hosts, who tears the branches with deafening noise, the highest tips are cut off, the peaks are felled». The image of the fire has the function of expressing the “imminent anger” which will be manifested at God’s judgement (3:7). In a word, they show the pressing imminence of God’s coming; the listeners must open their eyes to what awaits them.
Finally, John’s preaching contrasts the two baptisms and the two persons: John and the one who is to come. The substantial difference is that Jesus baptises with the Spirit and fire whereas John only with water, a baptism for repentance. This distinction emphasises that the baptism of John is entirely subordinate to the one of Jesus. Matthew notes that the baptism with the Spirit has already taken place, namely in Christian baptism, as told in the scene of Jesus’ baptism, whereas baptism with fire must still come and will take place at the judgement that Jesus will perform.
The aim of John’s preaching, then, is to present a description of the judgement that awaits the community through the image of the chaff. The action of the farmer on the threshing-floor when he cleans the wheat from the chaff will also be the action of God on the community at the judgement.
5. A meditation
a) Expecting God and repentance:
In his preaching John reminds us that the coming of God in our lives is always imminent, he also invites us strongly to a repentance that purifies the heart, renders it ready to meet Jesus who comes into the world of men and women and opens it to hope and universal love..
An expression of Cardinal Newman may help us understand this new direction that the Word of God suggests is urgent: «Here on earth to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed frequently». To change is to be understood from the point of view of repentance: an intimate change of heart. To live is to change. If ever this urge to change grows dim, you would no longer be alive. The book of the Apocalypse confirms this when the Lord says: “You are reputed to be alive yet are dead” (3:1). Again, “to be perfect is to change frequently”. It seems that Cardinal Newman wanted to say: «Time is measured by my repentance”. This time of Advent too is measured through the project that God has for me. I must constantly open myself, be ready to allow myself to be renewed by Him.
b) Accepting the Gospel:
This is the condition for repentance. The Gospel is not only a collection of messages, but a Person who asks to enter into your life. Accepting the Gospel of this Sunday of Advent means opening the door of one’s own life to the one whom John the Baptist defined as more powerful. This idea was expressed well by John Paul II: “Open the doors to Christ…” Accept Christ who comes to me with his firm word of salvation. We recall the words of St. Augustine who used to say: “I fear the Lord who passes by”. Such a passing by of the Lord may find us at a time of life when we are distracted or superficial.
c) Advent – a time for interior souls:
A mystical evocation found in the writings of Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity helps us discover repentance as a time and occasion to immerse ourselves in God, to expose ourselves to the fire of love that transforms and purifies our lives: «Here we are at the sacred time of Advent which more than any other time we could call the time for interior souls, souls who live always and in all things “hidden in God with Christ”, at the centre of themselves. While awaiting the great mystery [of Christmas]… let us ask him to make us true in our love, that is to transform us… it is good to think that the life of a priest, like that of a Carmelite nun, is an advent that prepares the incarnation within souls! David sings in a psalm that the “fire will walk ahead of the Lord”. Is not love that fire? Is it not also our mission to prepare the ways of the Lord by our union with the one whom the Apostle calls a “devouring fire”? On contact with him our souls will become like a flame of love that spreads to all the members of the body of Christ that is the Church”. (Letter to Rev. Priest Chevignard, in Writings, 387-389).
6. Psalm 71 (72)
With this psalm, the Church prays during Advent to express the expectation of her king of peace, liberator of the poor and of the oppressed.
Rule your people with justice
God, endow the king with your own fair judgement,
the son of the king with your own saving justice,
that he may rule your people with justice,
and your poor with fair judgement.
In his days uprightness shall flourish,
and peace in plenty till the moon is no more.
His empire shall stretch from sea to sea,
from the river to the limits of the earth.
For he rescues the needy who calls to him,
and the poor who has no one to help.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the needy from death.
May his name be blessed for ever,
and endure in the sight of the sun.
In him shall be blessed every race in the world,
and all nations call him blessed.
7. Closing prayer
Lord Jesus, led by the powerful and vigorous word of John the Baptist, your precursor, we wish to receive your baptism of Spirit and fire. You know how many fears, spiritual laziness and hypocrisies reside in our hearts. We know that with your fan, little wheat would be left in our lives and much chaff, ready to be thrown into the unquenchable fire. From the bottom of our hearts we say: Come to us in the humility of your incarnation, of your humanity full of our limitations and sins and grant us the baptism of immersion into the abyss of your humility. Grant us to be immersed into those waters of the Jordan that gushed out of your wounded side on the cross and grant that we may recognise you as true Son of God, our true Saviour. During this Advent take us into the desert of nothingness, of repentance, of solitude so that we may experience the love of Spring. May your voice not remain in the desert but may it echo in our hearts so that our voice, immersed, baptised in your Presence may become news of love. Amen.