1. On Thursday of last week, President Macron received an award for his contribution to confronting antisemitism. At the same ceremony, in the Salle des Fêtes in the Élysée Palace, a Hanukkah candle was lit to mark the start of the celebration of this key Jewish feast. M.Macron was quickly attacked on all sides by those who insist that in France secularism trumps everything. The president defended his participation, but probably his case was not helped when, on the following day, he was to be seen on the rooftop of Notre Dame, admiring the construction of the new spire.
Not only in France, where laïcité is virtually 'sacred', but in so many places, any expression of faith, especially Christian faith, is treated with at least suspicion, if not outright hostility.
In this secular climate, there is a need for Isaiah's message of consolation and new opportunities for preparing a way for our God.
3. This Sunday's Second Reading is taken from the Second Letter of Peter. There are clear Advent themes put in context. First of all, the concept of waiting - Peter warns us to be careful about attributing our way of understanding time to God: 'The Lord is not being slow to carry out his promises, but being patient...'
There is also that warning of the first part of Advent, to 'live holy and saintly lives while you wait and long for the Day of God to come.' We are advised to live lives 'without spot or stain.'
St. John the Baptist, Limestone panel relief, 17th cent.
Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens
Sonnet for St. John the Baptist
St. John's Eve
Midsummer night, and bonfires on the hill
Burn for the man who makes way for the Light:
‘He must increase and I diminish still,
Until his sun illuminates my night.’
So John the Baptist pioneers our path,
Unfolds the essence of the life of prayer,
Unlatches the last doorway into faith,
And makes one inner space an everywhere.
Least of the new and greatest of the old,
Orpheus on the threshold with his lyre,
He sets himself aside, and cries “Behold
The One who stands amongst you comes with fire!”
So keep his fires burning through this night,
Beacons and gateways for the child of light.
Rev. Dr.Malcolm Guite
Sounding the Seasons
2. Our First Reading is taken from the Prophet Isaiah. In this chapter 40, the second part of Isaiah, there is firstly the message of consolation: 'Comfort my people, console them.' The people have endured great suffering and the deprivation of the celebration of their faith, but now something different is promised. 'Her time of service is ended; her sin atoned for.'
The text goes on to anticipate a new dispensation. The call to prepare a highway for our God, to shout, 'Here is your God coming with power, his arm subduing all things.'
Further consolation and comfort are delivered in the description of one who 'is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering the lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes.' The tenderness expressed here is remarkable, clearly a convincing message of comfort for a suffering people.
Perhaps in our world which sees so much suffering, we, as disciples of Christ, the Good Shepherd, might look for practical ways of exercising a ministry of comfort and consolation where we can.
St. John the Baptist, at the church of Orsanmichele, Florence, Ghiberti, 1412-1416
4. Our Gospel passage gives us the very beginning of Mark. Right away, we are presented with a quotation from our First Reading, Mark picking up these words and appropriating them to the mission and ministry of the Baptist. He describes the appearance of John, his message of repentance and his own physicality which would have reminded people of the unusual and perhaps disturbing appearance of the prophets of former days.
The short excerpt finishes with one of the hallmarks of the Baptist - his humility. He robustly preaches repentance for the forgiveness of sins, but he also insists on the superiority of the one who is to come. John is able to indicate that "I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals." This was the task of the most menial of servants or slaves in any household. John puts himself in this most humble of roles.
We can learn much from John the Baptist. We are asked to share in
his work of preparing a way for the Lord. In a virtually post-Christian society, there is a need to really introduce Jesus to many people, not least the young. The way we do that will be crucial. A robust insistence on repentance for sins might not attract many, not least because the concept of sin is quite foreign to most. However, a gentle and sincere humility might well speak to so many people who are daily assaulted by over-bearing and domineering figures who make their lives so difficult.
The mission and ministry of the Baptist instruct and encourage us still.
St. John the Baptist, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1660 -70
National Gallery, London
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