St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Today John the Baptist is at the centre of the Gospel story. He appears in all four Gospel and his role is clear. He is the awkward character who is doing what Isaiah spoke of 700 years before. He is a messenger of hope by preparing in the wilderness a way for the One who will be the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world and transform the wilderness of our lives. John says that the promised Anointed One is coming soon and that people should get ready to recognise him when he comes. What is John telling us today?
Firstly, John's message is spoken in the desert. That harsh landscape is not just a strange place, near the River Jordan where people can find John. His being there says that the Messiah will be found in strange places. And that is what happens. Jesus' parents are unimportant people. He will go unrecognised by Herod and the chief priests. He will live as a poor wandering preacher and die as a criminal. So, the heart of John's message is, 'be prepared to be shocked by God's anointed one'. His call to repent means refocusing his listeners so that they can have eyes and ears to recognise Christ who would come in his own way. Narrow hearts will be too blinkered to recognise him. The uncomfortable truth is that the truth is always uncomfortable.
That is a message for every generation. There is always the temptation to domesticate God and to present the divine in a way that is comfortable for us. But John warns us against that. God is always bigger than anything that we can imagine. God's ways are always much more outrageous than our little plans or hobby horses. Furthermore, John knew that he was the one preparing the way. He knew that he was not the light. He wanted to clear the road for the Messiah, not let his personality get in the road. He wanted to point to the Christ, not make himself into a distracting side-show. The Church does not exist to make itself popular or strong but to make Jesus known and loved. For Jesus and John, their weakness was their strength. A strong Church risks pointing to itself rather than to the Cross.
There is a second point that comes from John's ministry. He calls individuals to examine their own lives. As we know, some people recognised Jesus when he came but many others did not. Repentance is not just looking at our sins. It involves opening ourselves in prayer to attune ourselves to Christ's voice. To use the language of Isaiah, it means a constant re-opening of our lives to the poor, the broken-hearted and the captives, for these are the ones to whom Jesus goes. Prayer – whether in private or in public – is not mainly about getting things done by God. It is about making space for grace in our hearts and decisions. That is why silent prayer and adoration are at least as important as public or verbalised prayers. Silent prayer and the prayerful celebration of the sacraments helps us see the world through God's eyes and not merely through the priorities of the market. Thus, repentance is not just something we do during Advent or Lent. It is a permanent way of life, a growing communion with Christ so that we can interpret the events of our lives as part of our journey to sainthood. John the Baptist calls us to a constant turning back to God.
Thirdly, John is a prophet. He steps outside the normal boundaries of faith and lifestyle. That does not mean that everybody who is angry or critical of the status quo is a prophet. There is no guaranteed grace or infallibility just by feeling strongly about something. But it does mean that we have to be prepared to listen to uncomfortable prophetic voices who go against the flow and say things that we would rather not hear. God's truth so often comes from the fringes rather than from the centre. Church renewal has always come about through those who withdrew to the deserted places or worked with the most difficult and marginalised. At present, we hear strong voices warning us about the dangers of the pandemic and other who, with equal passion, tell us that it is all a hoax. Some scientists and medical personnel tell us that we cannot do without lockdowns in order to save lives. Others tell us that lockdowns are killing people. John the Baptist's example suggest that God's truth is most likely to be found in those who are people of prayer, who live with little, love the marginalised and who are prepared to speak uncomfortable truths in love. In every generation the Church needs people like that. Truth comes from strong loving voices and not merely from shrill angry ones.
We are now entering into the last two weeks of Advent. Our second reading tells us to journey on in joy and thankfulness, no matter what our circumstances. It means seeking God in the wildernesses of our lives and our Church, for that is where Christ's renewing grace will be revealed. It means dreaming of what God promises to do through those who are open to his grace. As the Pharisees and Sadducees showed, if we do not discover the uncomfortable God in the wilderness, we risk worshiping an excessively prim and proper false God in the Church. If we can use these last 12 winter days well, we will be preparing to celebrate the light that burst forth on those who were not afraid to walk in darkness. And we can journey in joy because the Lord will make both integrity and praise spring up in the sight of the nations.
+ Donal McKeown