The Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent is a kind of miracle story in this respect: “all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out” to John the Baptist. Really? All the inhabitants? What could possibly rally unanimous response to John’s preaching? The answer: universal longing.
“John did not ask the sinner not to be a sinner,” remarks Cardinal Jean Daniélou (d 1974). Rather, he asked sinners to want to be freed from sin. He was sent to destroy their indifference and delusions toward sin.
The Baptist addressed himself to the pretences to which people cling, and he denounced their illusions by getting them to confront the inmost depths of their own hearts. His mission moved his hearers to face the ravaging personal effects of sin. For sin fragments and conflicts us. It addicts us to our emotions and feelings.
It turns us doubtful, fearful, defensive and inward. It cripples our capacity to practise virtue. It makes us domineering and ruthless. It wearies us, wears us down. It deprives us of peace. It accustoms us to despair. Who wants to live with that? John’s solicitous witness beckoned: wouldn’t you like Something More … the thing your heart was made for?
In this, John the Baptist was irresistible. Even with his weird clothes and bizarre diet, John the Baptist was not so much eccentric as exceptional. Before all else, John the Baptist was an attraction that erupted in the lives of the “people of the whole Judean countryside”, making them aware of the presence of, as he says, “one mightier, coming after me”. The word “Advent” itself means the beginning of a presence.
And this is the goal of the repentance he preached. For authentic repentance is ordered not to a law or a code of behaviour but to a person. Repentance is a change in what we set our heart on. We want to conduct ourselves “in holiness and devotion … to be found without spot or blemish” when we are in love. John’s preaching was a plea for all to come and meet the Presence who had transformed and magnetised him. John spurs in us the desire to live a different humanity, like his own – one that proclaims to the world, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God.” He is alive in me!
It makes sense that “the highest form of repentance is faith in Christ” (St Cyril of Alexandria). The assuring counsel of today’s Second Reading, from the Second Letter of St Peter, begs us to believe that the Lord “is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance”. That is, that all should confess a great new “yes” of faith. For the essence of faith is recognising that something comes to meet us which is greater than anything we could ever think up for ourselves. Faith, as Benedict XVI put it, is “letting ourselves be interiorly seized by the restlessness of God”. Pope Francis, in the encyclical Lumen Fidei, speaks of faith as “a light coming from the future and opening before us vast horizons which guide us beyond our isolated selves”.
For good reason, John the Baptist revives the urgent cry of the Prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight a highway for our God!” I finally “got” this many years ago hearing a homily in which Isaiah’s plea was explained via the image of cooking spaghetti. There comes the crucial moment when the noodles are al dente that you must instantly shift from stove to sink to drain the boiling water. But what if hungry family members stand idling in the kitchen? You roar: get out of the way! Make a straight path! Why? So that you can prepare something completely wonderful for them: delicious pasta.
How crucial it is to go out spiritually to the desert: the symbol of a definitive break with old ways. We leave off our idleness to let our valleys be filled – everything that lays us low. So too our mountains, to be levelled – our tendency to think too highly of ourselves. This preparation tends to one end: the miracle of our hearing the Mighty One speak tenderly, “Give comfort to my people.”
Jesus Christ, in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is preparing something wonderful for us. Our universal longing for freedom, meaning and happiness will find its ultimate fulfilment in his human flesh. Isaiah prophesies that God, “like a shepherd”, will feed his flock. But even he could not imagine that the Shepherd would feed us with himself, and that we would feast on Real Presence.
“The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” is more than the beginning of a book; it is the beginning of a Presence.
Fr Peter John Cameron OP is editor-in-chief of the English edition of Magnificat
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