Homily for Advent 3 2008
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
I Thessalonians 5:16-24 Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil. May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
John 1:6-8, 19-28 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.
“Who are you?” Now, that’s a tough question! And it’s the right one to ask. In today’s Gospel, this is the question the priests and Levites ask of John the Baptist.
It was a fair question to ask of someone like John, whose ministry had drawn large crowds from Judea and Jerusalem, where the Temple itself was located. It might be compared to the Pope hearing that thousands of Catholics were leaving Rome to go out into the country to listen to some unheard-of religious guru. Of course, he’d want to know, and he’d send someone to find out.
“What are you?” is easy enough to answer. I can say, without thinking about it much, “I am a priest, I am a father, a husband and a Canadian. I am Caucasian, right-handed, 6 feet tall, etc.
“Who are you?” carries different connotations, and is often much more difficult to get at. The poet May Sarton said:
Now I become myself.
It’s taken time, many years and places.
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people’s faces . . .
As children, we fantasize about becoming many things – superheroes, astronauts, professional athletes, artists, dancers, movie stars, doctors, lawyers, and so on. But then many of us go through life feeling we are always playing to someone else’s expectations or ideas. When do we get to the point when the face we are wearing is our own, and looks out on the world from a confident and secure centre? How many masks and identities do we need to try on before our own becomes satisfactory? How do we ensure that we are inhabiting our “whole being” in the manner that the prophet Isaiah suggests in today’s first reading?
While we are not called to be John the Baptist, we are called to be most genuinely ourselves. Rabbi Zusya put it very well: “In the coming world, they will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me, “Why were you not Zusya?’” (as in Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p. 11). Or, as Thomas Merton said, “Anyone who imitates me does so at his own risk.”
John the Baptist is a focal point for us again this Sunday. He was a figure of the desert, and as such a representative of those wild, nameless and mysterious places most of us fear to go. As Jesus came to be seen as a man acquainted with sorrow and grief, John was a man acquainted with solitude and silence and the depths of his own company. The poet Carl Sandburg said: “Only those who learn how to live with solitude can come to know themselves and life. I go out there and walk and look at the trees and the sky. I listen. I sit on a rock or stump and say to myself, ‘Who are you Sandburg? Where have you been, and where are you going?'”
We need to ask ourselves those kinds of questions. Who are you? In order to find out, it’s important to take time to reflect, to be receptive and open. As Psalm 46 suggests: “Be still, and come to know that God is present.” The world is a “busy monster” (e.e. cummings) – restless and never still. At no time of the year do we feel that restless energy more than during the weeks leading up to Christmas. At no time do we feel so pressured to define ourselves in terms of material and external things.
Once upon a time, a friend of mine was fooling around with a neighbour kid and ended up breaking the younger boy’s arm. His parents, who obviously felt he was spoiled and should do penance, made him give all of his toys to the younger boy. I recall him tearfully making trip after trip across the street. His parents thought nothing could hurt him more than having his toys taken away from him, and that he would be a better person without them. My friend was definitely hurt, but apparently disagreed about the rehabilitation aspect, because within weeks, he had stolen most of his toys back. To a six year old, being separated from one’s toys seems very threatening. Should that still be the case when we are 40 or 60?
John’s voice raises for us uncomfortable questions of attachment. What defines you? What labels do you wear? Are we synonymous with our accomplishments? Does our life have anything to do with the things we own? Does it have anything to do with what we put under the Christmas tree?
The Advent season calls us to an inner stillness in which the life of Christ can be born. That is why John’s message is so important. “Prepare the way” is not about construction projects in the desert. It is a call to (or maybe from) an inner and deeper part of us. John’s voice is a call from, and to, those empty and unfamiliar places within us. John addresses himself – as Jesus does – to the soul – to the person we really are (or are meant to be). To prepare the way is to create a spiritual path through the surface stuff that keeps sabotaging our life – and into the heart of who we are – so the good news can actually touch us, heal us, bring us to new life, and motivate us to be the person we were meant to be. In the right spirit, people can actually enjoy Christmas and not simply feel pressured, compromised, and resentful.
As Parker Palmer says, “Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God” (Let Your Life Speak, p. 10). We often seem to treat life as though the opposite were true. Christmas especially seems to have gone in a direction almost opposite to its original spirit, from being a spiritual journey with the Holy Family through the darkness to the birth of the Light. It’s hard not sound like a Grinch when making that point, and scolding people that they’re “not doing it right” hardly seems the Christian thing to do. But to encourage people to create a balance between the outer demands and the inner peace and calm seems to be appropriate.
John seems to be a very centred individual. He knows who he is. Just as importantly, he knows who he is not. His answer to the delegates from the Pharisees suggests that he saw very clearly his place and purpose, and that he was satisfied with being who he was. He was not ambitious to be more than he was or steal someone else’s fire or glory. He didn’t make exaggerated claims nor did he boast about himself. He didn’t have a “Messiah complex.”
One of John’s famous sayings is: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). On one level, it refers to John’s ministry being superseded by that of the coming Messiah. Knowing how great a person John was, that alone says something significant about Jesus. But on another level, it could be understood as a reference to the journey toward authentic selfhood, and the need to overcome our ego, or our false self, in order to allow our true spirit, our essence, the Christ within, to shine forth. “I” must decrease, “I” meaning the ego – in a nutshell, it’s the mind-set which makes the universe “all about me.”
John’s ministry was to those lost and misguided souls who desperately needed to find a new direction. John’s voice in our time may be an obscure and even discordant one, partly because it challenges our materialism and our facile self-understandings and values. But his voice is also an incentive to seek and find our true self , in order that we find our own way, rather than getting in someone else’s way, and so we are not stealing someone else’s light, while failing to offer our own.
Who are you when no one’s looking – when you’re safe to relax? Who are you when you are free to do what you really want to do? Who are you in the silence and solitude of the middle of the night? Who are you in terms of how you relate to and treat others?
Who are you? As Caroline Myss suggests, you can’t really articulate that because you are the answer to the question! I think the goal is to be able to say, with perfect honesty and integrity: “I am who I am” – which is how God identified himself to Moses.
John was at home with himself – in himself. John was unique, one of a kind – an original. Obviously, so was Jesus. It’s hard to believe that we are too. So Advent recalls us, as a voice sounding in the wilderness, in the midst of all the calls in other directions, in the midst of all our busy-ness, to find that place and time to reflect, to be still and silent and alone, to listen for the still small voice of God, and allow that to guide our actions, rather than the shrill voices of the corporations and their high-pressure, envy- and guilt-inducing advertizing. Advent invites us to look in the mirror and ask, “Who are you?” Ask sincerely, and often enough, and maybe you’ll be surprised by the answer!
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