The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Monday, December 8, 2014

Hearing and being voices

NOTE: The following is the homily delivered yesterday, the Second Sunday of Advent, by Fr. Harry Hagan, O.S.B., in the Archabbey Church here at Saint Meinrad. I thought it was worth sharing. He reflects here on two of the Mass readings for the day: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 and Mark 1:1-8. -- Br. Francis

Today the Gospel and first reading offer us two different voices. Though joined by a common text, they are two rather different voices.

In the Gospel we hear the voice of John the Baptist, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Clothed like an animal, “in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” and eating “locusts and wild honey,” he is something of a wild man in our minds. His is the voice of confrontation, a shrill voice of the apocalypse confronting us with our broken reality, with our sin. Strangely the people of Jerusalem are attracted to this voice and come to see what it is all about, accepting his “baptism of repentance.”

The first reading from Isaiah 40 begins with the famous words: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” This chapter opens a new section in the Book of Isaiah with a different historical context—somewhere around 550 B.C. Some 35 years earlier, the people of Judah had seen the destruction of the temple and the whole city of Jerusalem burned with fire. Then they had made the forced march into exile. We see something of their horrific experience in the Book of Lamentations, and Psalm 137 captures the enduring anger and hurt: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept remembering Zion.” You can read Psalm 137 as a defiant affirmation of loyalty to Jerusalem, but you can also read it as an attempt to hold off the allure of Babylon—to forget and become just another Babylonian. Surely, it would have been easy to have forgotten the Holy One of Jerusalem who had not protected them from this terrible exile in Babylon. The temptation to despair was real, and real was the temptation to apostasy—to the abandonment of the Lord of Hosts for Marduk, the seemingly magnificent god of Babylon.

These are the people to whom Second Isaiah, as we call him, must speak. These exiles in Babylon do not need a Jeremiah to bring a prophecy of judgment. They are beaten down and in need of hope. The temptation to despair is real. To this hurting people, Second Isaiah brings a message of comfort and hope, but it is not exactly as we would expect.

Unlike First Isaiah, who is clearly a player at the royal court (to say nothing of fiery Jeremiah or the weird Ezekiel) Second Isaiah is a voice bringing what God has said, or occasionally, what Judah cries out. There is no call narrative for the prophet as we typically find in other prophet books. The call to give comfort in the opening lines is not to the prophet—as the Hebrew makes clear. The verb is in the plural. If they had translated this in Kentucky, it would have read:

            You all, comfort; give comfort, you all, to my people.

Who is this “you all”? Strangely, the subject and the object are the same people. Judah is being called to give comfort to Judah.

We see this clearly in the last part of the reading There the call is to “Zion, herald of glad tidings,” to “Jerusalem, herald of good news!”  At this point in reality, Jerusalem is a heap of ruins and Zion is the place of the destroyed temple. However, the call goes out to Zion, to Jerusalem:

Go up on to a high mountain,
Zion, herald of glad tidings;
cry out at the top of your voice,
Jerusalem, herald of good news!
Fear not to cry out
and say to the cities of Judah:

(Note carefully what Zion and Jerusalem are to say):

Here is your God!
Here comes with power
the Lord GOD.

Second Isaiah creates a great affirmation and vision of the living God, the Holy One of Israel, the Creator of all things, the First and the Last. As we hear him say in the chapters that follow: “I am He”, “I am He who comforts” (51:12) and “besides me there is no god.” (Isaiah 43:11; 44:6, 8; 45:5).

The people in exile needed to hear this message. Without this affirmation of the living God, powerful to act, the proclamation of comfort and hope is just fantasy. And this is made explicit in the final lines of the reading where comes the Lord, “who rules by his strong arm” and then “like a shepherd … feeds his flock” and 

            “in his arms he gathers the lambs,
            Carrying them in his bosom,
            and leading the ewes with care.”

God comes with a strong arm that is also ready to embrace.

So in Isaiah 43, we hear the Lord announce:

            See, I am doing something new!
            Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
            In the wilderness I make a way,
            in the wasteland, rivers. (Isaiah 43:19)

Today’s Gospel and first reading give us two voices. They are not contradictory, only different. Importantly, the Church gives us both voices to hear—John the Baptist’s call to repentance, and the call by God in Second Isaiah for the people to announce to themselves God’s power to save and comfort.

Though these two passages have their own historical contexts, they reach across centuries and continue to speak to the hearts in exile, hearts imprisoned by sin.

In preparing for this homily, I have looked at recent news to see who is in need of this message of God coming to act, the message of God’s comfort and hope.

Issues of race have dominated the news since the summer and again recently. Clearly, many people of color in our country feel strongly that the institutions of justice are not fair and equal. One of the great contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King was his proclamation of a dream. A dream is not a reality, but without a dream we are in imprisoned by our present and our past, and Dr. King worked to make his dream a reality.

Sexual violence and allegations of sexual violence have claimed a place in the news. This sad reality is more pervasive than our world is willing to admit. The sin must be confronted, yet there must also be hope for new life lest the past become a land of exile.

Immigration is much talked about: undocumented aliens and exiles in this country. There are many complications and reasons on various sides. Still, what do the words of the Lord mean here: “Comfort, give comfort to my people”?

There are places of violence around the world—familiar places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Gaza. But there are many other smaller places, places that we have never heard of, raked by violence. Others are beset by Ebola —a disease which can penalize Christian charity. All these, and more, need messengers of God’s coming power, of his comfort and gathering.

I read recently about a bishop in the Amazon jungle with 800 Catholic communities and 27 priests. Surely, that is just one statistic of a people weighed down.

Compared with those things, we may count ourselves blessed, but I have talked to enough people for long enough to know that the voices of today’s readings speak personally and precisely to many of us, if not to all. We need to confront our sin and sins. We are all in need of God to act, and we are need of each other to comfort and to call us all to comfort each other.

This is the work of real hope—not just wishing it was different. No, the work of hope is taking up the voice of both John the Baptist and the voice of comfort, and then ourselves becoming those voices in our own world. Our world may seem small and mundane, but nonetheless, it is our own real world. We are called to be the voice of John the Baptist and the voice of God’s hope to each other, so that something new may appear.
-- Fr. Harry Hagan, O.S.B.
Second Sunday of Advent, 2014
Saint Meinrad Archabbey

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