5 December 2021
Baruch 5:1-9 Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11 Luke 3:1-6
Advent is not a penitential season in the same sense that Lent is. Joyful hope rather than penance is its keynote, as today’s Scripture readings illustrate. Nevertheless, we are called to repentance. The voice of John the Baptist rings in our ears: ‘Prepare a way for the Lord. Make his paths straight’ (Lk 3:4). Preparing a way for the Lord and experiencing the joy of salvation are inseparably linked. They are two sides of the one coin. While we have begun to live the joy of the Gospel, we remain pilgrims on the way, ‘hoping to reach the perfect goodness which Jesus Christ produces in us for the glory and praise of God’ (Phil 1:11).
In our first reading, the Prophet Baruch proclaims a message of hope to the Jews living in exile in Babylon. The Exile (in the 6th century BC) was a particularly traumatic experience for a people who saw themselves as specially chosen by God. They had lost everything they held precious, their freedom and the things that gave them a sense of identity as a people: their homeland and Temple. Their most cherished hopes had been crushed and it seemed that God had forgotten or abandoned them. Psalm 137 captures their feelings of dejection and abandonment: ‘By the waters of Babylon, there we sat and wept, remembering Sion; on the poplars that grew there we hung up our harps’ (vv 1-2).
Baruch assures the exiles that God has not forgotten them, and that he will soon return to lead them back to their homeland and restore their fortunes. Thus, Jerusalem will once again become a city of joy, peace and integrity: ‘Jerusalem, take off your dress of sorrow and distress, put on the beauty of the glory of God forever, wrap the cloak of the integrity of God around you…: since God means to show your splendour to every nation under heaven’ (Bar 5:1-3). These words must have been music to the ears of the long-suffering and disheartened exiles. They are meant to be music to our ears, too, for Baruch’s message of hope is as relevant today as it was when he was alive.
While our circumstances are very different from those of the poor and oppressed Jewish community Baruch is addressing, many people in Ireland today are living through a kind of exile. They no longer feel at ease in a country that has changed beyond recognition, and abandoned those traditions and values that gave many people a sense of identity and security. A priest friend of mine, who recently returned to Ireland after more than forty year of missionary service in Africa, captured this experience of loss in these words: ‘I am back again in my homeland, but I no longer feel at home here. The Ireland I left in the 1970s is dead and buried’. So we, too, no less than the people of Israel, need to be reminded that, even if we have been unfaithful, God is ever faithful and will never abandon us.
Our gospel passage from Luke introduces us to the figure of John the Baptist, the precursor of Jesus Christ. John is presented, in words taken from the prophet Isaiah, as a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’, calling his contemporaries to repentance: ‘Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low, winding ways will be straightened and rough roads made smooth’ (Lk 3:4-5). Today there is another voice in the wilderness calling on us to prepare a way for the Lord. It is the voice of Pope Francis exhorting all of us to open our hearts and minds to the Spirit and engage courageously and humbly in the synodal journey that he launched just a month ago.
For Pope Francis this period of preparation for the upcoming Synod on the theme of Synodality (journeying, listening, and discerning together) is a vitally important ‘ecclesial moment’, an opportunity to heal the wounds of the Church and renew its energies in the service of mission. So he appeals to all of us, lay and clerical members of the Church, ‘not to soundproof our hearts’, not ‘to remain barricaded in our certainties’, but to listen to one another and to the Spirit of God, who will lead us to new pastures. The mountains we need to remove are the mountains of our pride, self sufficiency and complacency. And the valleys that we must fill are the valleys of cynicism and fear of change. The synodal journey will not be fruitful if we are like the Zen Master’s guest in the following story:
A Zen master invited a visitor to tea. The guest arrived, crossed his legs and sat in silence. The Zen Master then took the teapot and started to fill the cup. When he had filled it to the brim, he continued to pour until the tea was flowing over the saucer and on to the floor. The guest was horrified and enquired why the Zen master was so careless. ‘Because’, the master replied, I feel that your head is like this teacup – so full of certainty that it would be impossible for me to add anything to what you already know. You cannot hear what I say.’
Let us then, in response to the exhortation of Pope Francis, engage in the synodal process with open minds and hearts, allowing God’s Spirit to guide us to a new dawn for our Church and its mission in the service of God’s reign of justice, truth, peace and love.
Fr Michael McCabe, SMA, December 2021
To listen to an alternative Homily from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below.