Second Sunday of Advent December 6, 2020
Isaiah 40: 1 – 5, 9 – 11
Psalm 85: 9 – 14
2 Peter 3: 8-14
Gospel: Mark 1: 1 – 8

In our magnificent first reading from the prophet Isaiah, which is echoed in the words of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel, a voice cries out: “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low.” Advent is a great time for us to clear the ground, to make level the path, so as to facilitate what God, with all his heart, wants to do. Many of us now find ourselves in a kind of desert space from the isolation, fear, and grief we are experiencing during the deadly COVID pandemic. If you are an introvert like me, you may have welcomed at first the emptier calendar and the quiet space. But now, what might have started as a honeymoon has deteriorated into a terrifying place that we desperately seek to leave.

In today’s first reading, a voice cries out in the desert, bringing hope and comfort to the shattered exiles. Some of them thought the exile was a punishment from God for their sins. But when Isaiah speaks of the “strong arm” of the Holy One, it is not raised to inflict punishment, but is one that has the strength to gather up all the lost lambs, to hold them close to God’s breast, and gently lead them home. When many of us have been touch deprived in these last months, unable even to hold the hand of a sick or dying loved one, Isaiah’s image of God holding us to her breast, does, indeed, bring comfort.

The First Reading comes from the beginning of the section of the Book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55) attributed to the great prophet of Israel’s return from Exile in Babylon. This ‘Second Isaiah’ sees the return from Exile as a ‘New Exodus’. The prophet’s role is to ‘tell the good news’ of Israel’s coming liberation and to describe the wonders that will attend the return of the captives across the desert to their land. Because they are God’s liberated people and because God will be at their head, leading them home like a shepherd, nature will transform itself to ease their path. A ‘way’ is being prepared, not just for Israel, but for God, whose ‘glory’ will be made manifest to all humankind. The sufferings of the people are interpreted, in conventional mode, as punishment, but this aspect is not the main point.)

The Gospel, Mark 1:1-8, takes us to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, which, omitting any account of Jesus’ earlier life, begins the story of Jesus simply with the ministry of John the Baptist. For Mark – and for the early Christian tradition generally – the appearance and proclamation of John follows the ‘script’ indicated by the passage of Isaiah quoted as the First Reading.

There is a slight difference in that, whereas (Second) Isaiah had a voice crying, ‘Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord’, in Mark (as already in the Greek translation of Isaiah [LXX]) ‘the voice’ (John) cries out in the wilderness: that is, the wilderness is the location, rather than the object, of the cry. Nonetheless, John’s appearance and his voice indicate the fulfilment of what Isaiah had foretold: the ‘good news’ (‘gospel’) of the coming of the Lord, for whom ‘a way’ has to be prepared.

John the Baptist echoes the cry of Isaiah, announcing that there is a new way out of emptiness and misery. God picks us up and wraps us round with love that comes through letting divine forgiveness wash over us and then follow Jesus.

At the end of this week, we celebrate the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who gives us another assurance of God’s tender care for the most vulnerable and deserted. Let her wrap you in her rose-filled cloak and bring with you anyone you know who feels deserted and let her speak words of comfort to you as she did to Juan Diego: “Let not your heart be disturbed. Are you not under my protection?”

The Lord’ is, of course, Jesus himself, Messiah and Son of God (1:1) and the ‘way’ that has to be prepared for him is no longer a path through the desert but a way constructed in human hearts. The ‘way’ is the conversion from sin called for in John’s message, enacted in the water baptism that he celebrates for the crowds. John’s appearance – his clothing and his diet – portray him in the guise of Elijah, the great prophet traditionally expected from Mal 3:1; 4:5-6, to return to earth to preach repentance before the coming of the Lord.

But, beyond the summons to repentance, John has a Christological confession to make. He points to the One who is to follow him as One of far higher rank. In Jewish rabbinic tradition, students carried the sandals of their teachers as a mark of respect, but John is not worthy even to untie the sandals of the One who is to come.

Unlike, John, who baptises with water, this coming stronger One will ‘baptise’ with the Holy Spirit. He will bind up the ‘strong man’ (Satan; see 3:22-27), who currently holds human beings captive alienating them from God and from their own true humanity. Empowered by the Spirit (1:10-11), Jesus will reclaim human lives from all the captivities (sin, ignorance, disease, etc.) that hold them bound and draw them into his own life-giving intimacy with God. This is the meaning of ‘baptising with the Spirit’.

Thus the ‘good tidings’ of ‘home-coming’ (from Exile) that (Second) Isaiah proclaimed concerning Israel has become the ‘Gospel’ of humanity’s return to its true home within the ‘family’ of God. Each Advent invites us to revisit a longing for that ‘home-coming’ existing in the depths of our souls.

In the Second Reading, from 2 Peter 3:8-14, features typical Jewish apocalyptic imagery of the ‘Day of the Lord’. It provides a symbolic portrayal of the Christian sense that Christ’s victory over sin and death will take time to be fully worked in the world as a whole. Believers must not lose heart, nor allow themselves to be simply absorbed in the present shape of the world, which is destined to give way to ‘a new heaven and a new earth’. There they and their faithful pattern of life (‘righteousness’) will truly be ‘at home’.

We need to make use of Advent as a season of reflection and preparation. We are invited by the Church to prepare for Christmas. Christmas is the time for reflection and personal renewal in preparation for the coming of Jesus into our lives. Through the section of his letter which we read today, St. Peter reminds us, on the one hand, of God’s great desire to come into our lives and, on the other, of our need to be prepared for that event when it happens. We want God’s help and comfort, but we are not always prepared to change our ways to enhance genuine conversion. For God to come to us, we also need to go to Him. We need to let every day become Christmas and the “Day of the Lord” for each one of us.

We need to accept Jesus instead of ignoring him during this Christmas season. It was their stubborn pride and self-centeredness, which blinded the eyes of the Jews and kept them from recognizing Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah. The same stubborn pride, the same exaggerated sense of our own dignity, blinds the intellects of many of us today who not only fail to accept Christ and his good tidings, but also prevent others from accepting him. The mad rush for earthly possessions and pleasures, the casting-off of all the reasonable restraints and restrictions which are so necessary for the survival of human society, the rejection of all things spiritual in man’s make-up, the general incitement of the animal instincts in man – all these are signs of the rejection of Christ. Let us accept Jesus as our personal Savior and Lord during this Christmas season and remain, or become, true Christians in our daily conduct. Let us use these days of preparation for Christmas to ready ourselves for Christ’s daily coming and Second Coming, remembering that the Second Coming will occur for each one of us on the day of our death, or on the Day of the Lord, whichever comes first.

We need to become preachers of the Good News: John’s message challenges us to consider whether we lead others to Jesus, or whether our actions are motivated by a need for attention and affirmation. John’s preaching reminds us also of our important task of announcing Christ to others through our lives at home and in the community. When we show real love, kindness, mercy and a spirit of forgiveness, we are announcing the truth that Christ is with us. Thus, our lives become a kind of Bible which others can read. John the Baptist invites us to turn this Advent season into a real spiritual homecoming by making the necessary preparations for the arrival of the Savior and his entrance into our lives.

God bless you. Have a blessed week.

Fr. Michael Dias