Gospel Reflection For the Second Sunday of Advent, 10th December 2023 by Fr Brian Maher OMI
Gospel Reflection for Sunday December 1oth 2023 | Second Sunday of Advent
Isn’t it interesting that the ‘Good News’ about Jesus does not begin with Jesus at all? Before we meet the central character in Mark’s story we must meet someone else, someone who is not just ‘great’, but is described by Jesus himself as the ‘greatest person ever born of woman.’ (the greatest person who ever lived).
Mark seems to be saying to us, if you really want to meet Jesus and understand his message then you must first meet another great man, John the Baptist. Today’s Gospel (and also next week’s Gospel) is dedicated to John the Baptist, and therefore offers us an opportunity to accept Mark’s invitation to meet and try to understand him?
Whenever someone says, “Let me tell you about X”, I get a sinking feeling in my stomach. Biographies, even biographies of people I like and admire, can be long and, in parts at least, tedious and boring. If I begin by saying, “this is what we know (or more likely don’t know!) about the life of John the Baptist”, it might be of interest to some but most will probably click that horrible little ‘x’ or back-arrow at the top right or left corner of your screen, enabling you to move to something more relevant or interesting.
Rather than this, let me simply offer a couple of simple reflections on his life and mission and what we might learn from them.
If I were looking for a person to act as my ‘campaign manager’ – a person to go ahead of me and prepare the ground for my later arrival – I would probably be looking for a person who would have an attractive and friendly personality; a person with whom others could identify; a neat, well-dressed, out-going person; a person with an easy smile and the tact not to alienate others.
If this were the CV I was looking for, then John the Baptist would be the absolute last person I would consider for the job. If one wanted to be kind to John one would describe him as a strange man, an eccentric. At worst one might describe him as an oddity, or ‘as mad as a hatter!’.
He lived alone in the wilderness, foraging for himself. He dressed badly, “in clothing made of camel hair,…”, rough and uncomfortable. His diet was what he could forage in the wilderness, “locusts and wild honey”, not the kind of food a refined or educated person eats. I can almost hear some who saw him thinking, “has that man no self-respect?”
And yet…and yet… John was the one chosen by God to introduce Jesus to the world.
In our eyes he was strange, eccentric, odd, unsuitable, crude, but in the eyes of God, John was ‘great’, the person with the perception and insight to recognise Jesus for who he was, and with the humility to stand aside and point to Jesus as the ‘chosen one of God’ – the one who should be followed.
Isn’t it amazing how God seems to see greatness in the strangest and weakest of people – in the poor, the despised, the unwelcome and outcast. Even in sinners like Mary Magdalene and sworn enemies like St. Paul God saw goodness and potential.
This reality must give us pause for thought. When we feel bad about ourselves, and all of us do at times, and when we think we have nothing to offer to God, that we are too weak, too insignificant, too sick, too sinful, we should think about God’s choice of John the Baptist as the one to introduce Jesus to the world.
God’s ways are not our ways. God’s choices are not our choices. The most unlikely people, perhaps frightened, desperate parents, risking their lives in a boat to seek something better for their children, have been chosen by God to teach us something about hope and love and family.
And despite what the world may think, despite what I may think myself, I too am chosen by God to be ‘great’ in my own way. The values of the world cannot be allowed to dictate my worth. My dignity, as does the dignity of every human person, comes from the truth that within me is the image and likeness of God.
If I can believe that; if I can place my trust in the God who created me and loves me, rather than in the values of a world governed by greed, power and cheap flattery, then I will recognise my ‘greatness’ in the eyes of God, and I will, in my own way, be able to respond.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts……”
It was Shakespeare who wrote this, showing his usual insight into human psychology.
Mark, in today’s Gospel, seems to see John the Baptist in the same way. He is a minor actor on the stage of Jesus’ life. His role is to introduce the central character, Jesus, to the audience and then exit.
It is almost amusing how Mark introduces John to us: “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness…” he tells us; He ‘appeared’ in the wilderness – as if by magic! Where John came from does not matter to Mark. He had his part to play, he played it and then he exited. He appears again in Chapter 6, briefly, to die!
Mark is always in a hurry. He just wants to get to Jesus and his message which is urgent and important. It is understandable, then, that in Mark’s Gospel John the Baptist is a minor actor with a minor part to play in the great drama of Jesus’ life. Sadly, in his hurry, he probably does not do full justice to this ‘greatest’ of men.
It is left to Matthew and Luke to fill in some details for us. It is Matthew who tells us: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…”, while it is Luke’s Gospel which tells us of the miracle of John’s birth, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth (John’s mother), and how John, still in the womb, recognised Jesus, also as yet unborn. This recognition of Jesus by John prepares us for the great moment when John shows Jesus to the world at his baptism.
John was born into a priestly family. His father, Zechariah was a Levite and one of the order of priests. However he was not in Jerusalem and so he would not have held an important position. John, like every son, would have been expected to follow his father’s footsteps and also become a priest. As a child Zechariah would have taught John the Law of Moses and begun training him in the ways of priesthood.
But John did not complete his training. At some stage, he turned his back on his training, and indeed on almost everything else in the world, and headed off into the wilderness alone. His motivation was certainly a religious one, a desire to turn away from the wealth, power and hypocrisy he saw in many of the Pharisees and priests and live a simpler, more authentic lifestyle.
However, no matter how genuine his motivation I cannot help feeling that both his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth, must have been disappointed by his going.
How could Zechariah, a priest himself, avoid feeling in some way judged by his son’s rejection of his way of life? And Elizabeth, who must have foreseen great things for her son after his miraculous birth, must have been secretly disappointed by his decision to abandon his training and head into the wilderness to pursue a solitary, ascetic life. No mother would not worry about a son living in hardship and discomfort, no matter how much he might try to reassure her.
It is not difficult for me to imagine Zechariah and Elizabeth consoling one another, saying that he would be “OK, that God would be with him”, yet carrying quietly their own concerns and worries. I can almost hear them say to one another, “Where did we go wrong?”
But once again, God’s ways are greater than our ways, and John was being prepared for the important role he was to play in Jesus’ life. Disappearing into the desert and turning his back on the world might have appeared an end, or even a disaster, but it was not so.
When we feel that things have gone ‘wrong’ for us, and we can’t see any good in what is happening, or when we feel we have failed and are disappointed in ourselves, we might remember John the Baptist and his loving parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Sometimes, what we consider ‘wrong’ at a particular time may become ‘right’ as circumstances change around us. When I look back on my own life I can see several moments when I saw only ‘wrongness’ in what was happening to me and my loved ones. However, as time passed, I came to see a ‘rightness’ in what happened; a rightness I could never have seen at the time. Such moments are indeed humbling.
And isn’t this what faith is? Never being certain, yet trusting that “everything works for good, for those who love God”. (Romans 8:28).
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Gospel Sunday December 10th 2023
A voice cries in the wilderness: prepare a way for the Lord
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