HOMILY at the 9h and 10h30 MASSES for the SECOND SUNDAY of ADVENT © 2018
Today’s Eucharist has the theme ‘the joy of Salvation.’ By coincidence, tomorrow is the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights – December 10, 1948. Something of which the UN should be justly proud, coming as it did – as mentioned in its preamble – in the wake of barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind.
Seventy years on I find myself wondering. Not least because I have been privileged to live out my life under the protective coat of that Declaration, in countries that have at least honoured it with their lips if not their hearts.
But I find myself wondering more and more in the face of a brutality and barbarism which seems to be on the increase across our world, where a rhetoric of rage and hate festers and foments division, prejudice, and worse.
It’s bad enough when this happens on the level of the individual – those who follow the news in the UK might have seen the disgraceful story of the systematic bullying of a 15 year old refugee from Syria who was living in Huddersfield. It’s true that there has been some public outrage against the perpetrators of this particular piece of evil. It’s equally true that for weeks before the atrocity, the boy had been pleading for help. His cries were ignored – by police, social services, school authorities. One wonders which of the reactions is the ‘spirit of the British people’ spoken of by Prime Minister May.
But bad as this is, there is much much worse on the international stage. The denial of human rights or their subjugation. So this week we hear that the highly respected humanitarian organisation which has worked tirelessly round the world since 1971, Médicins sans Frontières, has been forced to stop rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean sea. The story is complex, but it involves determined international activity by the Italian government which first forced the Panama government to deregister MSF’s rescue ship, the Aquarius, meaning she cannot set sail. We saw a little while ago that other EU states have gone along with Italy by refusing to accept the rescued refugees. Despite the fact that many, though perhaps not all, of them are clear victims of humanitarian disaster.
There is no joy of salvation for those who find themselves victims in the cold Mediterranean at this time of year. The doors are firmly closed – and human rights are traded off as insignificant if you come from the wrong country. It’s ironic that world attention over the last few days has been focussed on the rescue from the southern oceans of one round-the-world sailor, whilst we conveniently forget the many drowning on our doorstep in the Med.
All of this should emphasise to us just how much our shared humanity stands in need of the healing for which we look at this season of Advent. Today’s first reading, perhaps, should underline this. Baruch is a rather strange book of the bible, and one that we don’t hear from all that often. This reading comes from the final of three parts, which is a poetic exhortation to the exiled people and is close to passages found in second Isaiah. The words are well worth pondering at length – speaking as they do of the transforming glory of the Lord which clothes the people with a cloak of justice – a guarantee of harmony, security and prosperity that come from the Divine presence. The exiles will return – no longer on foot and weary as when they were removed but now carried on a royal throne, children from east and west rejoicing that God has remembered.
It’s a beautiful picture – but one that contains a reminder of the need for discipline. There is a reminder that high mountains must be made low, a need for a way through the desert which is, of course, picked up in today’s Gospel reading. John is the voice of one crying in the desert but first he has had to be in the desert himself to hear from God what his voice will cry.
S. Luke’s elegant introduction to John the Baptist and the influence he will have on the world has the underlying suggestion of another kind of barren desert too. That caused by a negative response in history to God’s messengers. We hear of the carving up of Herod the Great’s kingdom by the Romans – significantly leaving their own man – Pontius Pilate – in charge of the most important of the provinces and sharing out the rest between two of Herod’s sons, and one Lysanias about which we know almost nothing. It was a clever piece of political strategy! But a sign of the desert into which the nation had wandered again under the Roman oppression. The religious leadership also would be fated to oppose God’s messengers in the shape of John and later Jesus. Caiaphas and Annas – son-in-law and father-in-law team – were likewise only in authority because the Romans allowed it and because it suited their policy of ‘divide and conquer’.
Yet into this desert – literal and metaphorical – stepped the late son of a priest to inaugurate the gospel’s new time of grace. God’s gracious word will not allow human perversity, failure and sin the last word. But this perversity has first to be recognised and repented. John’s ministry is about making the hills which are obstacles to God into a highway by exhorting repentance and a new beginning, expressed through baptism. And he points to the one who ultimately brings that new beginning, new life and grace into our world.
Here, then, is the joy of salvation. A desert blooming with flowers, awash with life-imparting water and bread from heaven, because it is a desert where repentance is found and forgiveness of sin.
The desert is never an easy place to be and its outward simple appearance is brutally deceptive. In the political desert that characterises so much of what is happening in our Western world at this time, there are very many complexities. They will never be solved by creating barriers – hills to hide behind, nor walls to separate and exclude, to cry out insults from behind their shelter. Ultimately, these things only exclude us from our truest selves. Cut us off from the life of God at the core of our being. For cut off from our neighbour – in whatever form or shape he or she is found – we are cut off from God.
In contrast, Advent calls us to rejoice. Next Sunday has that very name attached to it – Gaudete! To rejoice, to joy in the healing salvation God offers us in his Son who is coming amongst us. Free and gratis and for all. The barriers we want to erect of nationality, race, religion or ideology will fall before Him!