Convinced that the kingdom of God was imminent, John the Baptist devoted himself to proclaiming its coming. To anyone willing to listen to him he made a call for personal conversion as a way of preparing for an encounter with God, the supreme king.
by Sr Bridget O’Connell FMA
A young man approached the foreman of a logging crew and asked for a job. “That depends,” replied the foreman. “Let’s see you fell this tree.” The young man stepped forward, and skilfully felled a great tree. Impressed, the foreman exclaimed, “You can start on Monday.”
Monday Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday rolled by — and Thursday afternoon the foreman approached the young man and said, “You can pick up your pay cheque on the way out today.”
Startled, the young man replied, “I thought you paid on Friday.”
“Normally we do,” said the foreman. “But we’re letting you go today because you’ve fallen behind. Our daily felling charts show that you’ve dropped from first place on Monday to last place today.”
“But I’m a hard worker,” the young man objected. “I arrive first, leave last, and even have worked through my coffee breaks!”
The foreman, sensing the young man’s integrity, thought for a minute and then asked, “Have you been sharpening your axe?”
The young man replied, “No sir, I’ve been working too hard to take time for that!”
Our liturgy today gives us a loud call from Isaiah and from John the Baptist to take time to “sharpen our axe”, to prepare for the coming of the Lord during this time of Advent.
The call centers on the image of levelling the mountains and filling in the valleys, an image that goes back to the days when a king would be visiting the most remote parts of his empire and in preparation a smooth road would have to be prepared. Today our preparation is so that the Saviour can find the road to our hearts. The message is simple; level out the mountains of busyness and all that blocks out time for waiting and for reflection. Fill in the valleys of human need and learn to live in this present time, knowing that only the present well lived can possibly lead us to the fullness of life.
The work of advent is learning to wait. John the Baptist was the messenger who prepared the way for the Messiah. There are many messengers, of the good news, those who don’t even know that they are messengers, the care givers, the loving parents, the good neighbours, and those who live compassion. Advent calls us to recognise the many messengers in our lives. They are the people who remind us to sharpen our axe.
1st Reading – Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11
‘Console my people, console them’
says your God.
‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem
and call to her
that her time of service is ended,
that her sin is atoned for,
that she has received from the hand of the Lord
double punishment for all her crimes.’
A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the wilderness
a way for the Lord.
Make a straight highway for our God
across the desert.
Let every valley be filled in,
every mountain and hill be laid low.
Let every cliff become a plain,
and the ridges a valley;
then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed
and all mankind shall see it;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
Go up on a high mountain,
joyful messenger to Zion.
Shout with a loud voice,
joyful messenger to Jerusalem.
Shout without fear,
say to the towns of Judah,
‘Here is your God.’
Here is the Lord coming with power,
his arm subduing all things to him.
The prize of his victory is with him,
his trophies all go before him.
He is like a shepherd feeding his flock,
gathering lambs in his arms,
holding them against his breast
and leading to their rest the mother ewes.
2nd Reading – 2 Peter 3:8-14
There is one thing, my friends, that you must never forget: that with the Lord, ‘a day’ can mean a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day. The Lord is not being slow to carry out his promises, as anybody else might be called slow; but he is being patient with you all, wanting nobody to be lost and everybody to be brought to change his ways. The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then with a roar the sky will vanish, the elements will catch fire and fall apart, the earth and all that it contains will be burnt up.
Since everything is coming to an end like this, you should be living holy and saintly lives while you wait and long for the Day of God to come, when the sky will dissolve in flames and the elements melt in the heat. What we are waiting for is what he promised: the new heavens and new earth, the place where righteousness will be at home. So then, my friends, while you are waiting, do your best to live lives without spot or stain so that he will find you at peace.
Gospel Reading – Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah:
Look, I am going to send my messenger before you;
he will prepare your way.
A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.
And so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. John wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey. In the course of his preaching he said, ‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’
Scripture readings – Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com
First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11
The libretto for Handel’s The Messiah begins with Isaiah’s famous text: Comfort ye, comfort ye my people! The prophet is the voice of one crying in the wilderness. He is also the bearer of good news: the promise of comfort and a tender word. Exile is about to come to an end! Injustice, oppression and loss will be overcome! God’s glory is about to be revealed! That is why it is important for us to remember that God’s glory is nothing other than God’s awesome presence! Christmas is coming. New life is promised, freedom is near! Can you see the foreshadowing of John the Baptist in today’s gospel? Do you see the even stronger foreshadowing of the coming Messiah? Our task is to make a highway for him in our hearts! Rejoice! Here is your God coming with power! Listen to his comforting word! Welcome God with joy unbounded! Challenge the wilderness, especially your own! Make space for the LORD!
LORD, Adonai, may we discover new ways to comfort your people, to speak tenderly to them, especially when we feel like a voice crying in the wilderness. Help us to reach out to all our brothers and sisters in need wherever they may be, especially those who have lost their spiritual way. Help us to be carriers of blessing and release. Reveal your glory, your holy presence to us. Listen to our praise. LORD, come with power. Gather us like lambs in your arms, and then lead us home. Amen.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 84(85):9-14
In the form of a lament, our psalm today echoes many of the themes in the first reading. Salvation is near. God’s glory is coming. Kindness and truth meet. Justice and peace embrace. Truth springs up from the land and justice prepares the way of the Lord. Are we really open to truth, kindness, justice and peace, goodness and beauty? Are we ready to walk in their truly compassionate and understanding ways?
LORD, Adonai, we rejoice! Your glory is coming and new life is near at hand. Help us grasp the gifts you bring. How majestic you are, how awesome in holiness and splendour! Help us scatter seeds of kindness and truth in the world. Teach us how to be doers and sharers of your living word. And help us to be workers for your justice and peace. Give us the courage to prepare your way in our land! Amen.
Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-14
Today’s second reading is a response to those who doubt that the Messiah will come again. We are reminded that God’s time is not our time. God’s patience is not our patience. In God’s sight one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. Then we are reminded that God does not wish any one to perish. We await new heavens and a new earth in which justice and honesty flourish. We await Jesus knowing that the day of the Lord will come like a thief. May we be ready for his coming!
Lord Jesus, light a new fire in our hearts today, a warm holy fire. Touch us with your love. Let your grace and peace flow deeply in us from one moment to the next. We wait for your new heavens and your new earth! We wait for your glorious day! Remind us again that your time is not our time. Your patience is not our patience. Maranatha, come Lord Jesus! Come quickly to our aid lest we perish in the darkness of our times! Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.
Gospel: Mark 1:1-8
Mark’s gospel opens with words taken from the Prophets Malachi and Isaiah, which the evangelist then addresses to Christ: Behold, I send my messenger before your face (Malachi 3:1), the voice of one crying in the wilderness… (Isaiah 40:3). Mark then invites us to listen attentively to John the Baptist. John’s message comes in two steps. The first is a call to metanoia, to changed minds and lives. The second is a call to joyfully prepare the way for the coming Lord. The messiah is the Master of Wisdom! He is the Giver of Life who will baptise us with the fire of the Holy Spirit. Are we ready for John’s message? More to the point are we ready for Christ’s holy wisdom and holy fire?
Lord Jesus, help us respond to the Baptist’s call to change of heart, to transform our lives in your loving grace. Help us to prepare the way for your glorious coming. Come soon, Lord! Come with healing in your hands! Bring balm for sorely worried hearts and families, especially the homeless. Help those bowed down by these heartless times to carry unbearable burdens. Be our Master of Wisdom! Be our Giver of Life! Cast your fire upon the earth, the fire of change, the fire of renewal, the fire of love. Come, Lord Jesus! Come, now and forever. Amen.
Convinced that the kingdom of God was imminent, John the Baptist devoted himself to proclaiming its coming. To anyone willing to listen to him he made a call for personal conversion as a way of preparing for an encounter with God, the supreme king. The impact of John the Baptist and his preaching on his contemporaries was enormous. Despite the rigour of his life and the severity of his teaching, he succeeded in starting a huge movement of renewal in Israel, a movement that outlived him and lasted even to the time of the early Christians. It is a historical fact that he himself and his teaching prepared the way for the coming of Jesus of Nazareth in whom the kingdom of God was made present. As we prepare for the coming of Jesus into our world, we want to go back and hear again the voice of the one who proclaimed his coming. In his voice we continue to sense the urgent need to change our way of life in order to allow God to come close to us. To help us as we await the Lord’s coming, the Word of God in the liturgy presents us with the voice of the Precursor, the promised messenger whose mission it was to prepare the way for Jesus. As we listen to him we try to imagine that we are among those first listeners, and his message of salvation is still valid if we accept it in our hearts.
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'” 4 John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather belt around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
In the very earliest Christian tradition (Acts 10, 37), the figure and the mission of John the Baptist preceded and prepared for the historical appearance of Jesus. The first written account of this tradition is the Gospel of Mark, the chronicle of Jesus’ public ministry, and of his death and resurrection. It begins with an account of the ministry of John the Baptist. The first Christians considered the preaching of John the Baptist in the desert so decisive that they began the four gospels with it.
Mark gives a brief but very important introduction of John the Baptist. Before the evangelist says anything about him, he allows the Word of God to speak about him. Before he even identifies him by name, or tells us what he did, he lets us know, through the words of the prophet, who he was and what he was sent to do. More important than what he said or did, more important than his baptism and preaching, was what God thought of him and wanted him to be – his messenger and precursor. For the evangelist it was evident that what the Baptist did and the way he lived were the fulfilment of the divine promise. Proclaiming Christ is not a job for volunteers, but the mission of servants sent by God.
The one sent as precursor had no ordinary way of life and no ordinary way of fulfilling his mission. The Baptist who was sent to prepare for the Lord’s coming had to preach repentance, to live in extreme poverty and to foretell the coming of one more powerful, who was capable of baptizing not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. Anyone who is sent to prepare the way of the Lord knows now what he must do and how he must live.
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
John the Baptist knew that he was called to be the one who would proclaim the coming of the Lord, and he devoted his whole life to this God-given task. Jesus had not yet made himself known to the world when John was already proclaiming him. John fulfilled his mission by what he said and what he did. By preaching repentance and by living a life of penance, he prepared for the coming of the one who, alone, could grant the Holy Spirit to all who accepted him.
God wants to be close to us but he needs people who will put their voice at his service and bring conversion and hope to those who hear them. Our Christian life will be more genuine and our preaching more effective, if we speak to people by the way we live our lives, and if we offer the promise of something more than we ourselves can give. John the Baptist announced the Lord’s first coming. Does the Lord not still need voices crying in the wilderness so that he can return today? Are there not Christians today whose vocation is to prepare the way of the Lord who comes? If Christ is absent from our world, is it because there are no precursors?
The Baptist’s fellow citizens, the Jewish people of his day, desired God’s coming ardently. They longed for his presence because they wanted to be free from their enemies and return to serving their God as an independent nation. You would think that in those circumstances someone announcing the coming of God in the near future would be welcomed and would have a wide following. But that is not what happened then, and that is not what happens in our own day. From the tragic outcome of John’s life we can highlight two consequences that cast light on our own experience as believers – one that will strengthen us as we wait for the Lord’s coming, and one that indicates what is expected of us in our mission to the world.
The God we are waiting for always announces his presence. Before he sent his Son, he sent a forerunner, a voice that cried in the wilderness. If this is how God acts, it is hard to understand why we find it so difficult to wait for him. The truth is that often we are not too worried by his absence. We do not seem to miss him. We fail to hear the many voices that proclaim his coming, or to discern the many signs that speak to us of his presence.
The problem is not that we do not hear God spoken about in today’s world, but rather that it is hard to find believers who are willing to proclaim him. Nowadays you will find spokespersons for everything. Every activity, every entertainment or hobby, every political party, has someone ready to talk about it, but it is hard to find someone who is enthusiastic when it comes to speaking about God. God does not make news anymore, even among Christians. We tend to give less and less time to God. We are ever more reluctant to speak about him.
It is useless for God to continue to make us his spokespersons. We don’t want to hear him. His messengers disturb us when they speak his word. We, who want to be faithful to God, must first become hearers of his word. If we become attentive listeners to everything that speaks to us about God, then we will be aware of his absence and watchful for his coming. Waiting for God means listening to all who speak in his name, and accepting all that God chooses to communicate to us. We need to listen to his voice, and be able to distinguish his voice from the many worldly voices that surround us, and ponder it in our hearts as Mary did. Then we will become, not only hearers of his word, but bearers of God to our world. That is precisely what Mary did.
Then it will not be too difficult for us to live in hope. All we need to do is to listen to God. If we truly desire God, everything in life can serve to re-awaken our desire. If we live in joyful expectation of his coming, we will recognise his voice in that of his messengers. When we know that he is near and hope for his coming, everyday events help us to recognise the voice and the plan of God. If we commit ourselves to listening to God at all times, we have one more reason to live in hope while we await his final coming.
God is forever in need of messengers, people like John the Baptist who have heard his word and cannot remain silent, believers who await his coming and proclaim it to others. Despite what we may think, God still speaks. He still needs spokespersons, believers who will tell others what they have heard. He needs prophets, who will proclaim to others what they themselves are still waiting for. It is of little use if we know that he is coming and remain silent. We do not prepare for someone unless we are waiting for him. And we do not wait for someone if we know nothing about him. The people of today will not wait for God if we do not convince them that he is coming. We, the people who believe and hope, must lend our voices and our whole lives to God that he can speak through us. If we live without hope and if we remain silent, we force God to be silent, and the world remains in ignorance of his coming. How can we remain the same as we were yesterday, and live the same sort of lives we lived in the past, if we really believe that God is coming to us?
In today’s world we Christians keep quiet about our faith and our reasons for hope. This makes it more difficult for the world to believe in God, and to live in hope for tomorrow. God is not far away. He is still coming, the one in whom we hope. We can proclaim his coming if we are converted to a new way of living, overcoming all life’s difficulties without bitterness or resentment. Our fears and our silence condemn the world to feeling abandoned by God. It is not the atheism of those who do not believe, but the cowardice and silence of believers, that contributes most to the sense of God’s absence in the world of today.
If we really believe that God is coming because he wants to be close to his people, then we believe it not only for our own advantage, in the hope that one day we will be with him as members of his household. God is coming, not just for us, but for all people. We must proclaim our belief to the world.
The silence of Christian parents means that there are children who do not believe. If parents are without hope, weighed down by the needs of the moment, they cannot give their children reason for hope, nor a reason to strive for conversion. This is the unfortunate situation of many families. We live as if we had nothing to hope for in life. Yet we say that we believe in God and in his kingdom that is to come – what a contradiction! We must be converted to hope as we wait for God to come. Without doubt it is already good for us to know that God is far away, but it will be better when he returns and finds us strong in faith and hope. We are witnesses of a God who is coming, a God for whom we long. He is our future. He will change our world, our hearts and our community.