Reflections for Second Sunday in Advent
In a world of war and terrorism, of pandemic, of poverty and injustice, of dishonesty and manipulation of the truth, and of political expediency, and the effects of climate change, more than ever we are invited to proclaim a hope to our world by practicing our faith by addressing issues of justice, peace, and genuine human development for all God's people.
Last week, Mark exhorted us to stay alert, to stay awake, to be heedful. By using the word for gospel – evangelion –almost exclusively by Roman messengers to announce a Roman military victory, Mark repudiates this Roman Empire, and all empires, as being in opposition to God’s way. The wilderness is the seat of chaos, the source of subversion. Right at the beginning of Mark the counter-imperial message is right up front. Mark is raising our expectations that something new is happening with the coming of Jesus. It is a new creation. Jesus operates outside of Roman control. We know that empires come and go, but those who follow God’s way persevere throughout history. Who remembers the leaders of the Salvadorean military who killed for religious women? We still remember them when on December 2, 1980, these missionaries working in El Salvador were raped and murdered in El Salvador (Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan).
Though people wish for dramatic actions to bring about this new creation, the truth is that the dramatic has already happened. The newness has already happened but it can be impeded by us being asleep. God’s new beginnings cannot happen without our response.
The psalm shows us God’s world: it is about kindness, truth, justice and peace. Isaiah offered this encouragement to a people adrift in a state of confusion. There is hope for a new beginning as he is told to ‘speak tenderly (to the heart) to Jerusalem’. God’s power is revealed as a shepherd who holds close to self the broken and vulnerable. And this is a call to us.
We need people and movements who will wake us up to what is happening around us, to remind us that there are people around us who are hurting and suffering and unjustly treated, that our Earth is suffering; to remind us that God is present in each situation of hurt, suffering and devastation. There are people who courageously advocate for others, raise their voices, and stand in solidarity with people to promote human dignity. Like giraffes, they stick their necks out to advocate for those on the lowest rung; those unfairly treated, and vilified by church and state – and can pay a high price. John the Baptist could be seen as one who stuck his neck out, who according to Josephus, the 1st Century Jewish historian, said was seen as a subversive threat by Herod’s court.
Though the Church has often failed to be prophetic when it speaks out too soon to oppose or fear and slow to demonstrate commitment to God’s reign of nonviolence, the challenge remains – and is renewed - to embody what we proclaim in our own commitment to everyday acts of justice, inclusivity, kindness, compassion and generosity. These acts embody concern for the poor and marginalised, the broken and grieving, the excluded and rejected. And the people who may be in greatest need to hear this message of hope and joy are near - in our families, church communities, workplaces and neighbourhoods.
Isaiah and John express a deep sense of passion and care for people. They express God’s heartbeat and passion for humanity by offering reassurance and comfort: ‘Comfort, my people. Comfort them!’ Last week there was a suggestion that God was silent when people suffering injustice. It was not that God was silent but that many so-called prophets were silent as they are today. This was why people headed to hear John in the wilderness because they heart nothing of God’s concern for their oppression and need for justice in the Temple and city. They need to hear God speak as did the people of El Salvador when Archbishop Oscar Romero became the ‘voice of those without voice.’
Many unlikely people among us have become ‘prophets’. They have, and still do, confront corruption, abusive government systems, lies and injustices of all kinds to remind us of the humanity of people made faceless and anonymous. They showed us that change is possible. They remind us that our humanity is bound up with the most vulnerable. As they look into the faces of the other, they see something of their own faces. Others see also the face of Jesus who is hidden in every person. As comfort was proclaimed for the people suffering, those who were lulled into comfort in the face of evil needed to be awakened.
Advent calls us to wake up, pay attention, find the glimmers of light in the overwhelming darkness, and find hints of progress, to take courage, and realise that God is at work among us and through us. Each reading today communicates the same thing: ours is a God who comes to be in our midst. God comes through evil and trials and in prayer no matter how feeble that may be. They remind us that times of crisis are an opportunity for change, for newness and new beginnings. As we saw last week, Advent calls us to be on the lookout for the presence of Christ who inhabits our every loss, who is present in each devastation, who is present even in our betrayals and infidelities, and gathers us up when our world has shattered, and offers healing now. Mark’s opening words announce that the world that was and is stuck in its old, sinful and destructive patterns can be made new and alive. God comes to us through the life of another in whom we can see beauty and truth. There is no limit to the ways in which God comes, and for that reason, every juncture of our lives can be a place of encounter with the divine.
There are echoes of the psalm in 2Peter who looks for a new heaven and a new earth ‘where righteousness is at home’ and where we ‘strive to be found by [God] at peace’. First Nations’ people have been colonised, brutalised and dispossessed around the world. People have been torn from their homes and enslaved in other lands and completely lost their identity in the Caribbean and the USA and Latin America. In Australia, we still need to fully recognise and acknowledge concretely what our presence has meant to the First peoples of this land. We need to acknowledge our hard heartedness towards asylum seekers whose spirits have been broken and lives put on hold by long and unlimited years in detention. We need to acknowledge our part in the destruction of the Earth and the animal world because of our greed and over consumption. We need to come see that our ties to the USA cause us to be implicated in the murder of people overseas by drone strikes because US bases on our land facilitate this to occur – and those who draw attention to this are arrested and arraigned before the courts.
As we move into advent, there is a clear message. When Jesus breaks into the world he does so from the margins, from the unexpected places, from the places that no sensible person would ever venture. The true saviour of the world is not the one who wields military might or finance, but the one who courageously steps outside the main power structure to move into wild spaces full of creative energy and to see the world with a new set of categories than the ones inherited from culture. Jesus did not stay in the wilderness and no can we. Our call is to continually extract ourselves from the world of empire, of domination, of greed, of neglect and injustice and journey back into our old spaces imbued with the new perspective separation brings. The call is to turn away from the world as we know it and imagine a new future for our relationships, connections and a for our planet. This wilderness is the only place where we can hear the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Advent asks: Who of us will echo his voice? Who of us will respond? We need voices that will speak loudly and bravely of the implications of God’s presence in the world. Only the strong of heart have the courage to try.
Second Sunday of Advent – an alternative reflection.
Katherine A. Greiner, Ph.D.
Catholic Women Preach
Usually when the Advent season approaches, I try to commit myself to a daily practice of contemplative silence. I manage to squeeze it in between the frenzy of festive holiday parties, the noise of bustling shopping centers and lines to visit Santa, the stress of family visits and gift exchanges, and the joy of rousing choral rehearsals, concerts, and caroling.
But of course, like so many things in our lives, the global pandemic has interrupted this Advent practice. Now my controlled, timed contemplative silence has given away to an eerie silence. There are no holiday parties, no bustling shopping centers, no family gatherings, no choral rehearsals or concerts. Without these usual distractions, the silence is bewildering, charged with our collective wearied and fearful waiting. ‘How long will this last?’ We ask, ‘How long, oh Lord, how long?’ This Advent, we truly find ourselves in the desert, in the wilderness, where we cannot distract ourselves from our common human fragility, for our need for God’s compassionate mercy. It is in this silence that we hear today’s readings, calling us to be heralds of glad tidings, to comfort God’s people, to speak tenderly.
How are we supposed to do this, we may ask? How are we supposed to proclaim from the mountaintop God’s promise of salvation when we feel so low? How are we to speak tenderly, when our voices feel raw and thin, lost on the winds of all the uncertainty this year has wrought?
In her famous poem ‘Kindness’ Naomi Shihab Nye prophetically observes that we can only learn kindness when we allow ourselves to fully enter our own experiences of loss, suffering, and grief. She writes:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
The global pandemic feels like the desolate landscape where all of us have experienced varying degrees of loss. Our assumed certainty about the future has dissolved. What we have always counted on, the routines and patterns we clung to, have fallen through our hands like sand. The pandemic has driven us into a desolate desert, a wilderness marked by confusion, uncertainty, fear, pain, suffering, death. We feel unmoored in this liminality, where everything feels out of our hands, out of our control. But this, Shihab Nye tells us, this is the doorway to kindness, where we can learn to speak tenderly, to offer comfort, and to cry out with voices of hope ‘Prepare the way of the Lord! Here is our God! Here comes our salvation!’
But it will require that we, like John the Baptist, like Jesus, go into this desert. We must enter the bewildering silence. This desolate landscape the pandemic has unveiled unfamiliar territory to some of us; by circumstances of privileged positions in unjust social structures, we’ve managed to avoid many of the perils of suffering that are all too familiar to many people in our country and our wider world. The deserts of economic injustice, of violence, of racism, of the great disparity between the wealthy and the poor, existed long before this current crisis and is all too familiar terrain for millions on our planet. The voices of people suffering in these deserts are hoarse and parched, for they have been crying out for generations. Theirs are the voices that we may not have been able to hear in Advents past. Perhaps our greatest hope in this Advent is that maybe, just maybe, we will surrender our false sense of control and the idols of normalcy. In doing so, we will, like John the Baptist, go into the enter the desert, where we will be better able to hear and to heed these voices, so long ignored.
Of course, there will still be the voices who refuse to listen, who refuse to acknowledge the gravity of the pandemic and the heartbreak so many are experiencing. Out of deep fear, and dangerous combination of arrogance and selfishness, they try to escape this desert by any means necessary. Unwilling to face reality, they raise their voices in anger and violence and greed. As an Advent people, we must resist these voices, for their cacophony of denial and escapism only promotes division. We must, in the words of Isaiah, fear not to cry out God’s message of true peace and justice.
This Advent, more than ever, we are called to be both listeners and proclaimers, to be contemplatives and prophets, to let the silence prepare us to speak truth to oppressive power and to speak tenderness to the oppressed. As we continue to wait in joyful hope for an end to this pandemic, may this time of bewildering silence become a holy silence, one in which we hear God speak words of comfort and tenderness. There, in that silence, God will transform our cries of anguish into a chorus of Advent hope so we may proclaim: ‘Maranatha. Come! Lord Jesus Come!’