On this Second Sunday of Advent, we hear the account of the ministry of John the Baptist as given by the Evangelist Mark. We should pay attention since in the coming liturgical year we are going to work our way gradually through the whole of Mark’s Gospel.
He is much briefer than Matthew, Luke or John and misses out a lot of material that we find in the other Gospels, for example there is no account of the infancy of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel is about what Jesus does and where Jesus goes.
An important word in his Gospel is “immediately”. He tells us how Jesus does something and then “immediately” does something else or quickly moves on to another place. By this we get a strong feeling of movement and progress in Jesus’ ministry from the Gospel of Mark.
And in Mark too there is a much stronger emphasis on the conflicts Jesus has with the authorities. This is evident here in the account we are given today of John the Baptist. He is everything the Priests, Scribes and Pharisees are not.
They are in the Temple, he is in the wilderness. They live luxurious lives, he lives a primitive life. They are unpopular, he is immensely popular. They are proud, he is humble. He proclaims the immanent coming of the Messiah, they do everything they can to obscure his coming. And the more you look the more you will see further contrasts between them.
It is very important that John proclaims the Advent of the Messiah in the wilderness. The desert for him is a symbol of the religious situation of Israel.
They were formerly a people with great faith and trust in God who had led them into the Promised Land. But now the religious authorities were content with a comfortable, outwardly-conforming sort of religion and see no room or even reason for change.
John attracts the common people into the wilderness to hear his message of repentance so that they are purified and spiritually ready for the coming of the Messiah. They perceive John to be a genuine prophet and are convinced by his message. That John proclaims his message in the hardship of the wilderness gives his message an added air of authenticity.
Advent itself is designed by the Church to be a sort of liturgical wilderness to prepare for the celebration of the Birth of Christ. During Advent everything in the liturgy is more sombre and stripped of adornment. It is designed to be a quiet time of reflection and repentance. In particular we are asked to pay renewed attention to prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Our difficulty today is that Advent is completely overlooked by society at large. Even in financially straightened times Advent is swept aside in favour of a frenzied consumerist preparation for Christmas. Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays are given far more attention in the media than is ever given to Advent.
Advent Calendars used to be a wholly Christian tradition but now they have been hijacked by chocolate manufacturers. This is the reason I suggest that in a house with children it is good to set up a Jesse Tree. Just put a branch in a pot and decorate it either with figures from the Old Testament or with religious symbols. A Jesse Tree will help to prepare the family for Advent because the parents find themselves having to explain just who Moses, or Noah or Elijah actually were.
We should do what we can to create some space in our lives and in our homes so that we can keep Advent in a proper way. But I fully appreciate that this is a lot easier said than done.
John the Baptist never attempted to draw people to himself; his first and foremost concern was to point people in the direction of God and to warn them to prepare themselves for the imminent coming of the Messiah.
This is our task too; not to proclaim how wonderful and worthy we are but to point people to Christ and to tell them about his goodness and how true salvation is to be found in him. Like John we are road-menders; it is our task to open up paths along which Christ can travel.
We cannot bestow God’s grace upon a person. We cannot bring about a conversion. We are unable to enkindle the gift of faith in another, let alone in our own lives. Only God can do these things.
Neither does he need our help, just as Jesus never needed John’s help. But God invites us to carry out this task, just as Jesus went along with John and submitted himself to Baptism at John’s hands.
Jesus invites us to cooperate with him in his task of saving the world. He asks us to help him open up paths in other people’s lives down which he can travel. We cannot bring anyone to faith, that’s something between the Lord and the individual. What we can do, however, is to prepare the ground.
A good example of this is in families. Parents try very hard to bring their children up as believers. But they know that belief is ultimately the free choice of the child. The most they can do is by word and example to show how much they value their own faith.
We can guide our children in the ways of faith. We can pray with them and discuss together all kinds of religious issues but ultimately the choice of whether to turn to the Lord or not is theirs and theirs alone.
Sometimes this might mean that we feel just like John the Baptist “a voice crying in the wilderness” but we should persevere. Without becoming hectoring or forceful, we should persist in this God-given task of removing the obstacles that often grow up between our children and God.
A simple way of leading our children to faith is to pray with them. A good thing to do is to establish a tradition in the family of saying a formal grace before each meal. After saying ‘In the name of the Father’ invite each child to pray for a particular intention such as the poor or the sick or for a particular need. Then say the traditional ‘Grace before Meals’ prayer together. You will be surprised at the effect this will have on your family if it is kept up over many years.
We know that the road to faith is full of rocks and deep potholes. If we can help those around us by levelling the path for them we will be doing the work of God.
Sometimes this might simply mean giving a good example. On other occasions it might be clarifying the teaching of Christ to those who misunderstand it. Or it might mean helping someone to interpret particular events in their lives so that they can more clearly see the hand of God at work. Or it may be that all you can do is pray for those you know who need it.
There are many such ways to be a John the Baptist in our world today, many ways to pave the way for the coming of Christ into the lives of those around us.
Advent is a time of waiting and readiness. But there is nothing passive about it. Although it lasts only a month in the Liturgical Calendar it actually lasts a whole lifetime.