2nd Sunday Advent B

See Commentary on Mark 1:1-8 in Mark 1:1Mark 1:2-3 & Mark 1:4-8

Homily 1 - 2005

Advent presents us with the image of John the Baptist, an ascetic, an eccentric, a wild man, a man with something burning in his breast that led him to cry out for change.  Yet, as far as Mark is concerned, he is a man with no message beyond that: without a vision, without an answer to his own questioning spirit.  He looked for another, more powerful, more in touch with the Spirit of God, the one who could diagnose the unease and lead the way forward.  John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.  Apparently he was horrified by the mystery of sin as it took shape in his world, in his time.  He saw the need for things to be different, for people to change, if the world was to experience freedom from the destructive attitudes, interactions and structures to which they were captive.

Do you feel something of the horror of the sin of the world?  People lost, adrift, fearful, despairing, addicted to distraction, some unable to enjoy themselves unless drugged out of their minds.  

What are we doing to each other?  Violence is everywhere: Already there are apparently 100,000 abortions each year in Australia, and some want to introduce a drug that will make them even more numerous.  What does that say about the complicated mix of sexual attitudes, domestic violence, self-interest, economic pressure?  Legal systems, some of which boast of the rule of law, kill the ones who break the law – whether it be in Singapore, Indonesia, China, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia or even the United States, where last week saw the thousandth criminal sent to the electric chair, the great majority of those thousand poor and black.  Apparently about half the people on talk-back radio last week supported the hanging of Van Nguyen.  Nations wage war for the sake of peace, kill for the sake of security.  And behind it all, the millions who die each year from hunger and hunger-related diseases, locked into oppressive poverty to ensure the standard of living of the privileged minority, to which we belong.

Perhaps we all feel something of a “horror overload”, and have learnt to immunise ourselves against it.  We can’t even talk about the real world constructively – our culture’s conversation is too often “bread and circuses”.

John the Baptist had enough of the sin of the world.  But he refused to be locked into despair and certainly not into distraction – he would not accept that sin was inevitable.  John hoped - and from that hope, he cried out for change, for repentance.  It was not that he was the supreme optimist.  From the years alone in the wilderness, he had got in touch with his depths - that point of his soul where he connected with the divine energy we know as God.  He experienced his own yearning for the transcendent.  He learnt the radical possibilities for good in our world if only we can connect with our God.  Because he didn’t see things clearly, he looked ahead to another more in tune with the heart of God – to Jesus.

Jesus has come into our world.  But his coming has brought no “quick fix”.  Jesus’ way is not the way of imposition, of solution from above, of coercion.  It is the way of cooperation, of conversion, in which each of us needs to participate freely.  The journey that begins with the ability to name horror for what it is meets hope; and that hope leads, on our part, to commitment – to move, to speak out.  As Jesus says elsewhere: The harvest is ready but the labourers are few.  Come, Lord Jesus!

As we move now into Eucharist, we recognise the Christ present in our midst.  He has spoken to us through his Word.  He has encouraged us through each other.  He will offer us, with himself, in quiet trust to his Father.  He will in fact become our food and drink – nourishing and strengthening us to be his promise of hope to a world in need.

Homily 2 – 2008 

In today’s Gospel Mark shows John the Baptist striding onto the world scene, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  John was the last of an impressive line of Hebrew prophets who looked to the future with hope.  He did more than that – he lived to see, to baptise and to introduce the one who would fulfil the world’s hope – another prophet, Jesus, from Nazareth.  John’s concern was forgiveness of sins.  As a prerequisite for that, he called for conversion – repentance.  Conversion, of course, requires an openness to self-criticism, and an ability to recognise and to admit to sin, to being wrong, to doing wrong.

As a group, the distinctive thing about the Hebrew prophets was their persistent insistence that the nation, and individuals, face up to their wrong-doing.  Prophets were never popular at court.  Nations, and their leaders, prefer to claim how wonderful they are.  When things go wrong, they prefer to blame everyone else.  Look at our national leaders.  Look at the world’s national leaders.  …. Well, perhaps, it is enough to look at ourselves – that’s harder.

To admit to our own wrong-doing, we need a reasonably clear grasp of right and wrong.  With a bit of luck, we get taught this as children.  Our task, at this stage, is to choose to do the right thing.  That’s hard.  Unchecked, our selfish desires run riot.  And they’re powerful.  We need to work to strengthen our will-power, and to keep our selfish drives under control.  The part of us that does that is our ego - and our superego.  The ego needs clear rules.  It needs strong boundaries.  That, roughly, is what John the Baptist was on about.

But that is not the Gospel.  Mark clearly distinguishes John the Baptist from Jesus.  Jesus would be the one to preach the Gospel – but, to get hold of the Gospel, requires an enormous somersault, a wholly different kind of repentance.  The duty of the first part of our lives is that our ego become strong enough to establish control over our self-centred desires and appetites.  The task of the second part of our lives is that our ego learn to let go of its need to control.  The ego much learn to die to itself.  We must learn to move beyond control - to trust, beyond will-power - to willingness.

For the change to happen, we usually need to face some moral crisis.  We need to be confronted, painfully, with our own inability to establish complete control, or our confusion, or our uncertainty about things that before looked so black and white.  As the English mystic, Julian of Norwich, once wrote: We need to sin, or we never discover the mercy of God.  Either that, or, sometimes, another, whom we love deeply, sins – perhaps a child, or a friend, or a mentor – and how do we make sense of all that?

How do we react? Well, we can refuse to grow, and, instead, go back to the familiar certainties, try harder, become ever more rigid, ever more judgmental, and, possibly, move into denial of some kind.  Or, we can choose to live with the uncertainties (that’s what having faith means).  We can begin to explore, and perhaps even believe, the mercy of God – the unconditional love of God.  We don’t give up trying, but we learn to live with ambiguity.  We surrender the need to be in control, and to know everything, clearly, and we take the punt of God’s mercy.

That’s the Gospel!  That’s the Good News!  That’s discovering the God who rejoices more over the one sinner who learns to see things differently, (that is, who repents),  than over the ninety-nine self-styled right ones who see no need to change.  We can leave the first half of our lives to John the Baptist.  When we were at that stage, I don’t think we could really understand the message of Jesus.

Jesus is for the second half of life, when we have grown a bit, when we have faced the complexities of the world, and of our selves, and when we have learnt, honestly, painfully, humbly… no longer to keep on kidding ourselves but to trust in God’s mercy and love.

Homily 3 – 2011

I would like to continue today last week’s reflection on the issues of God’s forgiveness and our sin.  Last week I made the point that God is not surprised at our sin.  God is only too aware of it and wants to free us from its destructive influence and power.  God has already judged us; God’s verdict is, of course:  Guilty.  Guilty – but loved and forgiven.  God sent Jesus precisely to save us from the power that sin has over us.

Part of our problem is that we aren’t too convinced about it all.  For most of us, our sins are hardly dramatic or spectacular.  Why all the fuss?  We need to break free from the juvenile lists of sins taught to us by our parents, teachers and, perhaps particularly, by us priests.  We are no longer children.  We are adults.  We have consciences.  We need to develop them.  The lists we learnt as children rarely fit our reality as adults.  They trivialize sin.  Instinctively, we feel they are irrelevant.

It’s worth looking more closely.  God offers forgiveness, unconditionally.  But forgiveness is relationship.  Our part in the deal is where our hearts are at.  Sin takes it radical shape in us all as inbred hostility.  The important question is: What is the state of play in my heart in the struggle between love and hostility?  The things we do are relevant to the extent that they express and reveal that state of play.  [The hostility in the heart of a terrorist and the hostility in the heart of any enclosed nun are the same hostility.   It is just that their expression will be different, and that difference is often simply a factor of environment, or culture or upbringing.]

What’s going on in our hearts?  How does my behaviour allow me to see, in the struggle between love and hostility, which one is winning? One problem is often that we are not used to reviewing our attitudes and acts and seeing how they reflect the state of our hearts.  Often, on this issue, what we don’t do is more significant than what we do do.  The opposite of love is not hatred but indifference.  I think it might have been the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said in relation to Nazism: For evil to triumph, it is enough for good people to do nothing.

Consider, for example, your attitudes to such issues as: Asylum Seekers.  In financial matters, should shareholders’ profits be the first consideration? Should the emphasis with imprisonment be on punishment of criminals or on their rehabilitation? What about the environment? Attitudes can vary from agreement to disagreement; from active engagement to indifference and complete opting-out, and every stage in-between.  What matters is: What do our attitudes reveal of the state of our hearts in that crucial struggle between love and hostility? Closer to home: In our workplace or even our family does the way we handle differences, for example, reveal a determined stance for love or the triumph of inbred hostility?

A big problem is that most of us are blind to our deeper sin.  Indeed, a highly destructive aspect of sin is precisely its capacity to blind us to the moral dimension of our behaviour.  The world’s greatest sin was to have crucified Jesus, the revelation of God.  But none of those responsible would have seen their behaviour as sinful.  They would have congratulated themselves for having done the sensible thing, perhaps even God’s Will.   The Chief Priests had removed a blasphemer, the Pharisees a man who flouted the Law; Pilate had averted a potential riot; and the crowds just got excited and carried away and really didn’t know why they behaved the way they did.

Our insights into our deeper sin can be hard to put into a few words.  Our world is complex and our decisions reflect that complexity.  But, to the extent that we trust the unconditional love and forgiveness of God, we find the courage to look closely at our behaviour, without responding either by evasion or denial or useless remorse or despair.  We can begin to face the truth of ourselves, and that truth sets us free.

Homily 4 - 2017

I like Isaiah the prophet. I like Isaiah the poet. And I like his message for us today. He must have known we would need some comforting. Did you hear what he had to say? “Console my people, console them”. And then, “Shout with a loud voice, joyful messenger… Shout without fear.”

But there is a caveat. Isaiah was writing still five to six hundred years before the advent of Jesus. He, along with the Jewish people, still had more growing up to do. He was still wrestling with an issue that many of our contemporaries, perhaps many of us, still wrestle with – getting a consistent sense of God. Along with his insight into the God who comforts, he carried the inherited sense of a God still prone to violence, “Here is the Lord God coming with power, his arm subduing all things to him”. Worse, he [they] interpreted the exile from which the Jewish people were about to be freed as “double punishment for all her crimes ... that she has received from the hand of the Lord”. It is the child’s view of family relationships. The child sees parents as loving sometimes, but also powerful, and is prepared even to accept punishment as par for the course. It is the childish view, too, of God that a lot of adults never grow out of.

Perhaps as well as prophet and poet, Isaiah was something of a dancer: two steps forward, one step back – first a tender God who consoles, then a powerful God who subdues and punishes, and then, consoling again, “… like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes”.

Let’s look at Mark. He introduced his book as “the Gospel [or the Good News] of Jesus”. More – it was not just that Jesus was Good News, but that Jesus was the revelation of God, “Christ, Son of God” – showing us in human translation, as it were, what God is like. Mark was saying, equivalently, that God also is “Good News”.

Before introducing us to Jesus, Mark introduced us to John the Baptist; and used John to introduce us to Jesus. John said that Jesus would be “powerful”, and that his actions would be empowered by “the Holy Spirit” of God. In the rest of the Gospel Mark showed us that the power of Jesus lay, not in the power to coerce, not in the power to punish, but in his personal integrity, his consistent non-violence and in the beauty and attractiveness of truth. Even miracles were not so much deeds of power, intended to prove something about Jesus, but tender expressions of his desire to give welcome and life to those most in need.

John proclaimed a baptism of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins”. It is sin that poisons human interactions, leading us to engage with others on the basis of power rather than of intimacy, with hostility rather than respect. But to move beyond the generally unrecognised culture of sin, we need to repent – to see life differently, to see God differently, to see ourselves and others differently. We need to grow up. Simply, we need to learn how to love as alert and responsible adults.

In its report last week on the diocese of Ballarat, the Royal Commission focused more on the bishop and priests than it did on the perpetrators. Effectively, it said that we need to learn to relate, not as children to parent, but as adult brothers and sisters to each other. We need to be free to call each other to accountability. A metaphor that is helpful in its application to God and us can be quite inappropriate in another context. To me, this is where using the image of shepherd to sheep in order to model the relationship of bishop to priest, or priest to parishioners, is dangerous. It has contributed to infantilizing all of us. We need to grow up. I do; you do; even the bishop does.