Although we would expect the liturgy at this time of the year to be pointing towards the birth of Christ and so to the city of Bethlehem it actually points us not to Bethlehem but to Jerusalem.
The Prophet Baruch gives us a beautiful poem about the restoration of the people of Israel to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon. The idea of Jerusalem gazing towards the east in anticipation of the return of the people from exile is truly marvellous and fits in perfectly with the idea of the Church watching and waiting for the second coming of Christ.
This theme of waiting for Christ is also highlighted in the second reading where Paul urges the Christian community in Philippi to increase their love for each other so that they will be ready to meet Christ when he comes in glory.
The extract from Luke’s Gospel chosen for today begins the account of the life of Jesus with the appearance of John the Baptist. In this short passage Luke locates John in both secular history and salvation history.
Regarding John’s place in human history, Luke is very precise about the secular dates and gives all the important persons major and minor as reference points, as one did in those days to make sure that there was no confusion as to who we are talking about.
And he locates John in salvation history. He is presented to us as the final prophet of the Old Testament, the one foretold by Isaiah, the voice crying in the wilderness.
Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke tells us nothing about John’s dietary habits, locusts and wild honey, or how he dressed, in camel skin. Luke solely focuses on John’s preaching of repentance. Neither does Luke tell us very much about John’s ministry of baptism. It gets a mention, but only in passing. Even Jesus’ baptism takes up only two verses, almost as an afterthought.
John doesn’t make another appearance in Luke’s Gospel, as soon as Jesus is firmly on the scene the Baptist bows out. So, for Luke, John is the last and most important of the Old Testament prophets. His task is to announce the impending arrival of Jesus. Quoting Isaiah, John proclaims: All mankind shall see the salvation of our God. In other words, “Salvation is at hand, Jesus is here, so repent and get ready.”
So, although we are in our preparation for Christmas and Christ’s first coming, we are directed also to his second coming as judge and Saviour and the end of time. Yes, we look to Bethlehem but also to Jerusalem. To Jerusalem the earthly city as the place where our salvation was brought about on the hill of Calvary and out of the tomb in the hillside; but also to Jerusalem, the heavenly city, the fulfilment of all that we have longed for.
These are the historical and spiritual facts that make up the story of our salvation. The events leading to our salvation take place in specific places and at certain times and particular persons are involved: Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, John the Baptist, etc.
The preoccupation with dates and times and places is important: in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea… and: John went through the whole Jordan district. The facts are important because we are talking about actual events that happened in historical time and in a particular place.
God didn’t create mankind and then leave him alone to get on with things. No, God intervened. He intervened in history. He intervened with Noah. He intervened with Abraham. He intervened with Moses. He intervened with David, with Mary and with John the Baptist. All these interventions were part of the greatest intervention of all: the sending of his Son into our world to bring us salvation.
Although what I have just said might sound obvious, it is all too easy to let go of it, it is all too easy to fail to recognise just what has happened. It is much easier, and so many people do it, to slip into thinking that we don’t actually need to be saved. It is easy to believe that what we have been talking about are nice Bible stories suitable for children or naïve people, but whatever we need to do we can do for ourselves.
It is all too easy to hear one’s self thinking that if there is a God and I come before him for judgement he will surely give me top marks. After all, none of the sins I’ve committed has been very serious; and even the bad ones are perfectly explainable. Surely, he will give me nine out of ten without me having to trouble myself at all.
This is very easy to do, I caught myself doing it just the other day. I was just going from one room in the house to another and caught myself thinking: I’ll be all right, God will understand. I pulled myself up right away, thank God. But it only goes to show how easy it is to excuse oneself, to be the judge in your own case, to avoid thinking that you are in sin.
The problem is that even when we do acknowledge our few sins we also think that we can win our own salvation; we think we can accomplish all that is important in life by ourselves. We think that, on the whole, we are quite good and that God would be better off busying himself with the bad people down the road.
The only problem is, that isn’t what God thinks. He thinks you and I certainly do need some intervention. He thinks that the only thing that will save us is for us to accept the teaching of his Son. He thinks that we had better shape up. He thinks that we had better learn a few things.
His lessons are not harsh, far from it. But we had better learn them. And what is it that he tells us? That we need to experience more deeply the love of God; that we need to acknowledge our dependence on him; that we need to turn to him for moments of intimate communion all through the day; that we need to come together with other Christians more and more often to celebrate the sacraments, the channels of his love par excellence. He tells us that we need to get to know Jesus and realise the depth of the salvation he won for us.
The first lesson of the season of Advent is that God actually has intervened in human history. The second lesson of Advent is that he hasn’t stopped intervening in human history. And he hasn’t stopped intervening in the history of the human beings that are you and me, and that we ought to realise this and co-operate with his plans for us.
There are past, present and future dimensions to this. We know Christ came on that first Christmas day and we know he will come at the end of time. But what we often fail to acknowledge is that he is coming into our lives right now. As it says: today is the day of salvation.
And just as he intervened in the lives of Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, John the Baptist so he is intervening in our lives. Your presence in this place and in this Church and in this family and in this moment is not by any accident, it is in the eternal plan of God.
Advent is about expectation; about expecting the first and second comings of Christ. One is far in the past and the other is far in the future (or so we tend to hope), but what about the here and now? Should we not expect Christ to come into our hearts right now?
Yes, of course we should! So, let us echo the prayer of the early Church and make it our own: Come, Lord Jesus, come. Yes, Lord, come into our hearts right this minute, come and bring us your healing and salvation. Come and fill us with your joy and hope. Come into our lives and make us perfect followers of your word. Come and save us, come and be with us.
And in the words of Paul: Come Lord and increase our love, help us to be pure and blameless, help us to reach your perfect goodness so we may give glory and praise to God.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket