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Homily notes: 2nd Sunday of Advent Year C, 9 December 2018

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ  |  30 November 2018

Lectionary reading

First reading: Baruch 5:1-9.

Responsorial Psalm: 125(126).

Second reading: Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11.

Gospel: Luke 3:1-6.

Link to readings.

John the Baptist dominates the central weeks of Advent. His summons, “Prepare the way of the Lord”, has long been understood as summing up the message of the Advent season.

 But it is not as if we have to mentally project ourselves “back there” before the original coming of Jesus to hear the message of John. The hope that we as Christians cherish for the second coming of the Lord means that we can rightly identify with those in Israel who were the first to hear John’s announcement of salvation and his summons to a change of heart.

The trajectory that runs through the Scripture for today is clear in the way the Gospel, containing the beginning of John’s summons, picks up and positions the assurance proclaimed in the First Reading, Baruch 5:1-9. The prophecy of Baruch echoes in a post-exilic context much of the message of consolation contained in Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66). Foreseeing the return to Jerusalem of Israelites who had been exiled and scattered in foreign cities, the prophet tells the city to get ready to witness this wonderful homecoming. The exiles will return like princes, carried on litters by their former enemies. The way will be smoothed by the flattening of hills and other obstacles, the desert will be transformed into a paradise to make the journey a delight.

Detached from its original reference to Israel’s return from exile, the prophecy later functioned as a vision of the “home-coming” expected in the messianic age. The Gospel for today, Luke 3:1-6, has John the Baptist announce its imminent fulfilment. He is “the voice” foretold by Isaiah (40:3), the one who cries in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord”.

What is particularly striking, I think, about Luke’s presentation of John’s message is the care with which he pins it down historically by mentioning all those rulers at the start: from the emperor in Rome to the high priests in Jerusalem. To relate “sacred history” to what was going on in the world at large is a distinctive feature of Luke’s contribution to Christianity, both in his Gospel and also in his second work, the Acts of the Apostles. Luke in this way pointed the early Church to the world as much as to say, “It’s not all bad out there!” Aspects of the world order at the time, especially the peace and legal structure of the Roman empire could be of assistance to the spread of the Gospel. So the salvation that John heralds and that Jesus will bring is not something confined to a purely spiritual realm detached from everyday life and history. It comes at a particular time, into a particular place and culture. As it works itself out—beyond the time of Jesus into that of the Church—it will interact with all the cultures that it meets, challenging them it and transforming them as it seeks to bring the human race back to its true home in the Kingdom of God.

Beyond the vision of Baruch, what John sees is not just the return of the dispersed Israelites, but the “way of the Lord”. At the head of the new humanity, restoring it to freedom, will be the figure of Jesus. Those whom he gathers and leads will be “returned ones,” not now in the physical sense of returnees from exile, but in the biblical sense of “return” which also denotes conversion of heart. Once again, this Advent, John summons us to the change of heart whereby the Church becomes ever more deeply the vanguard of a human race making its homecoming to God and its own true humanity. The vocation of the Church, as a whole and its local communities, is to be the “light of the nations”, so “all humankind may see the salvation of God”.

The Second Reading, Philippians 1:3-6, 8-11, again catches up Paul’s sense of Christian life as a time of preparation for the (second) coming of the Lord (“the Day of Christ”). Noteworthy is the sense of the Christian community as a “work” that God, like a good craftsperson, is bringing to completion. This is God’s work—hence Paul’s prayer. But we should not fail to notice his stress upon “improving knowledge” and “deepening perception” so that the community will always be able to “recognise what is best”. Believers are not handed a perfect blueprint for salvation. In the ever-changing circumstances of human life and knowledge, we are summoned to a life of constant discernment: to ask what leads us to God, what leads us away; what gives us joy, what leaves us in sadness. Advent is a time of sharpening our sensitivity to the summons and calls of the Spirit.

 

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