Reflection for Second Sunday of Advent,
December 4, 2016
Advent Reflection by Sister Gemma Del DucaToday I want to begin our reflection on an interfaith note. As many of you know our local synagogue in Greensburg has a name that all year round reminds us of Advent—Congregation Emanu-El Israel. It can be easily translated; we would say it in English, “The Lord is with us, Israel.” This year the Jewish feast of Hanukkah and Christmas coincide. Hanukkah, the feast of lights, lasts eight days. It commemorates the victory around 165 BC or BCE of a small group of faithful Jews, Hasmoneans, also known as the Maccabees, over the Seleucids (a large Syrian-Greek army), and the religious significance was the reclaiming of the Holy Temple. When they went to light the menorah for the rededication (Hanukkah means dedication), they found that there was only one cruise of blessed olive oil, but the one-day supply miraculously lasted for eight days. In the Gospel of John (10:22) this feast of the dedication of the Temple, Hanukkah, sets the scene for the last of Jesus’ discourses before the people of Jerusalem and provides a fitting conclusion to Jesus the Light of the world in chapter 9. We did not continue this feast in Christianity, but in Judaism even today Jewish families celebrate by lighting their own Hanukkah menorah, eating foods fried in oil and spending time with loved ones, especially children. This year Hanukkah begins the eve of December 24th, our Christmas eve, and ends on the evening of January 1st. So while we are wishing each other a blessed Christmas, we can also wish our Jewish friends, Rabbi Sara Perman and the local community of Congregation Emanu-El Israel, a happy Hanukkah.
The Liturgical readings for this Sunday are a rich source of prophecy and promise, beginning with the beautiful passage of Isaiah 11. Here we have the rule of the ideal king, from the root of Jesse, father of David, this king blessed not with worldly might but with the Spirit of the Lord and the gifts of the Spirit that make him just and faithful. This is then followed by that wonderful vision of the animal world at peace on the holy mountain. The response, Psalm 72, speaks of the flourishing of justice and a peace that is profound and further reflected in the words of Paul to the Romans as he urges his hearers to think in harmony and welcome one another for the glory of God. For our reflection, we will turn to John the Baptist. You have all seen artistic depictions of him – a young, intense, holy man, deeply committed, profoundly moved by the Spirit of the Lord, that spirit that Isaiah speaks of so movingly. Where do we find him—in the Judean desert, experienced if we journey from Jerusalem through the Jordan valley. It is a hot area most of the year, where pilgrims plunge into the river to experience the blessing of the somewhat muddy waters of the Jordan River. But it is the words, actions, and spirit of this strange young man that spark our interest for this Advent reflection. The Gospel of Matthew gives us some information about John the Baptizer, but all of the gospels Mark, Luke, and John add more details to these twelve verses. So what I will read now combines lines from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:
(from Matthew) In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around the waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. … Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and from all the region along the Jordan,
(from Luke) The crowds came out to be baptized by him. He said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” And the crowds asked him “What then should we do.” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.” The people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah.
And John’s response was clear:
(back to Matthew) I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Is there anything that struck you as you heard these words of the Gospel? (Take a moment for reflection.) John appeared preaching in the desert—the desert is the place of new beginnings in the Scripture, from Exodus to this preaching of John – so we are caught up in the Gospel Word with John, this nomadic personality with his strange wardrobe and food in the wilderness. Why did all these people, including religious leaders and teachers, Pharisees and Sadducees, leave their villages and towns and head for this area of the Judean desert? They were looking for something not found in their secure more comfortable lives. They were dissatisfied with aspects of their lives – personal, social, political, spiritual—and so they let go of their daily routine, complacency and opened themselves to the outrageous, somewhat compelling preaching of the Baptist.
We could say that John the Baptist is the patron of authenticity. He did not worry about being politically correct, he said what needed to be said. He told the people who came to him – and there were many from all walks of life – he told them to share, to be generous; he told tax collectors to be just, and soldiers to find ways to be peacemakers. He taught the people of his day and ours that the Messiah comes to save us from the powers of duplicity, despair, darkness, death, and to put us back on the path of peace and reconciliation.
Maybe in this story of John the Baptist, we can see something of our own experience in these first weeks of Advent. All of us—no matter who we are—especially this year, entered Advent with a feeling of uncertainty, uneasiness, wondering about the unknown political situation, which penetrates even into our life of prayer. Beginnings, spiritual ones especially, demand restless hearts, facing up to what has not been yet brought to life in us. John the Baptist asked questions that cut to the core, and that burned within the hearts of his listeners long after the words had been spoken.
Sometimes we find people who seem to have found their way, found some response to our questions to our needs and like John burn their way into our hearts and into our time. Such a person for me is Alfred Delp, a young German Jesuit who during the Nazi era writes from his Berlin prison, in solitary confinement, with handcuffed hands; he writes in Advent a few months before he was hanged. (John the Baptist was beheaded.) And why was he hanged? Because in his words “I happened to be and chose to remain a Jesuit.” The authenticity and simplicity of his words strike one as a voice crying in the wilderness of his and our divided world, of a surely divided country, of frequently divided communities, of tragically divided families.
We began with opening us up to the Jewish feast of Hanukkah—interfaith dialogue, but dialogue is needed on every level. Alfred Delp wrote this from his Berlin prison: “Monologue has never been able to make the life of man or woman happy and healthy. We are only genuinely alive when we are engaged in dialogue. All mono-tendencies are evil. But by bringing the God-imposed tensions and burdens into dialogue the most terrible of all human maladies—loneliness—is overcome. From that point on there are no more starless nights, no more days of solitary confinement, no more lonely paths or pitfalls without companionship or guidance. God with us. That was the promise, that was what we prayed for and cried out for. Let us trust in life because this night will pass and a new day will dawn. Let us trust in life because we do not have to live through it alone. God is with us.” Christmas eve, 1944 (The Prison Meditations, p. 60)
And so, God is with us–Emanu El. Happy Hanukkah. A blessed Christmas.
Sister Gemma del Duca, SC