The Second Sunday of Advent
1. The television genealogy documentary, 'Who Do You Think You Are?' proved to be so popular that it has evolved through eighteen series. Watching well known personalities getting to know who they really are in terms of their family-tree has sent many others in search of their roots. The present Parish Priest has had emails and phone-calls from near and (very) far, looking for records of births, marriages and deaths of those long since departed.
There have been various copies and take-offs of the programme. In today's world, circumstances often leave people with a sense of lack of connectedness. A family-tree can have as many question marks as answers.
Of course, we belong to different families and our identity is not simply chained to one set of links, or the lack of them. Our identity as brothers and sisters of Jesus is crucial for our relationship with ourselves and with others.
The family of the church has for many centuries reflected on identity - making clear who we think we are through our family connection with Jesus Christ.
In earlier centuries, the identity of the Christian family was questioned, falsified and even vilified. Writers such as Jerome, perhaps remembered mostly for his Scripture scholarship, also set down clear markers about our family tree. To set straight those who would disparage Christians, he compiled his famous 'De Viris Illustribus'.
Our Readings this Second Sunday of Advent ask us to reflect on the roots of our Christian identity and to consider our daily living in terms of who and what we think we are.
The Prophet Baruch,
Pomponio Amalteo (1505-88)
Museo Civico di Gemona
St. Jerome and Cicero
the Hauptmarkt, Nürnberg
3. The Gospel for this Sunday (Luke Chapter 3, verses 1-6) is very much about setting the scene for the ministry of John the Baptist. We have a veritable 'Who's Who' of the political and religious landscape. This moment is significant and Luke is determined to make sure that we are left in no doubt about the historicity, the world-changing reality of what is taking place. First of all, we are told that we find ourselves in the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Narrowing down the 'sitz im leben', we are taken into the rough waters of local government. We are introduced to the 'tetrarchy' - the rule of four (though there were not always four!) Pontius Pilate as Roman Governor has taken the place of one of the four and then we have the roll-call of the others: Herod, Philip and Lysanias, and for good measure we are given the religious key-players. We are in the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas. As with the prophets in the Old Testament, the place and time of ministry is given with accurate and plentiful detail.
Against this background of the great and the good of the world of the time, we might well ask this strangest of characters, John, 'Who do you think you are?' The answer is God's answer: 'the word of God came to John, son of Zecharia in the wilderness.' (3;2) The Baptist is given his credentials: we know who his father was, and the locus of his ministry, the desert, is in stark contrast to the palatial dwellings of the political potentates listed earlier. However important and impressive the powers of the day might be, actually God intervenes in history on a different level altogether.
Santi di Tito: 'The Preaching of John the Baptist
1588, Dallas Museum of Art
2. Our First Reading is taken from the Prophet Baruch, Chapter 5 verses 1-9. Baruch is writing at the same time as his friend, Jeremiah. They deal with the same situation in the Sixth Century BC. Some believe that Baruch and Jeremiah were deported together and that they both had the task of reassuring God's People that their identity as God's chosen ones had not changed. Baruch is clear-sighted. He is all too aware that Israel 'wears a dress of sorrow and distress' because the people have been displaced, removed from their territory. They may well feel that their identity now is that of refugees, displaced persons, perhaps even people abandoned by God. Baruch, like Jeremiah and Isaiah, insist that they maintain their privileged status, their true identity. They left on foot with enemies for escort; now God brings them back.....God will guide Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and integrity for escort. (vv. 6-9)
As with the personalities in the television series, for the Jews, who they think they are has to be re-dimensioned, reconsidered, and their duties and obligations as God's chosen people have to be taken seriously.
The hint to us this Sunday of Advent is to check on our identity credentials. We can easily lose track of our Christian family tree and even more easily forget our obligation to live out our identity, to do what we can to make ourselves recognisable as Christ-like.
Mattia Preti: The Preaching of John the Baptist, c.1665
Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco
4. Luke goes further in answering the question to the Baptist, 'Who do you think you are?' He goes to the text of the Prophet Isaiah, Deutero Isaiah, to be precise (i.e. from Chapter 40 onwards). Here we have the terms of reference for the Baptist. 'A voice cries in the wilderness: prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.'(v.4) Interestingly, the verses which follow could just as easily have been taken from our First Reading. In both cases we have the decree that valleys will be filled in and mountains laid low. The ground is to be levelled to fashion a highway for the coming of the Messiah. This highway will allow all mankind to 'see the salvation of our God'.
The ministry of the Baptist will be to ask God's people who they think they are. His ministry is perennial - it is offered to us also. That crucial question is to be answered by each of us. We have to watch the Baptist at work. We will see him carry out his mission of converting hearts and minds, calling people to repentance. There precisely is the sense of the question with which we started. If we think we are disciples, if we would like to consider ourselves as having Jesus as our brother, with God as our Father, then who we think we are must have a follow-through in how we think we should act.
Maybe we might have the courage to ask who our neighbours think we are - by the way we live, and by the way we treat them.
The Prophet Baruch and John the Baptist have much to offer us in our reflection on a searching question and our honest answer.
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'
St. John the Baptist pointing to (the crucified) Christ
the legend in Latin: 'He must become greater; I must become lesser' (John 3;30)
The detail is take from Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece.
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