Every now and again I run across someone in the blogosphere discussing his or her scruples about praying for the English-speaking world’s most in-your-face, rage-against-God-atheist, Christopher Hitchens, who suffers from cancer. I think the issue is one of not wanting to pray for somebody who would be classed among the unforgivable sinners against the Holy Spirit. As Christopher’s own brother, who himself found his way back to faith from atheism, still hasn’t given up on him, I guess, neither should we: as long as there is life and breath, there is hope of a change of heart, of genuine and full repentance.
Christopher’s brother would seem to have St. Paul on his side. In our Second reading for this Advent Sunday, St. Paul exhorts the Romans (15:4-9) and us:
“Everything that was written long ago in the scriptures was meant to teach us something about hope from the examples scripture gives of how people who did not give up were helped by God. And may he who helps us when we refuse to give up, help you all to be tolerant with each other, following the example of Christ Jesus, so that united in mind and voice you may give glory to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It can only be to God’s glory, then, for you to treat each other in the same friendly way as Christ treated you. The reason Christ became the servant of circumcised Jews was not only so that God could faithfully carry out the promises made to the patriarchs, it was also to get the pagans to give glory to God for his mercy, as scripture says in one place: For this I shall praise you among the pagans and sing to your name.”
We live in hope then that the call to repentance issued by John the Baptist will be heard and heeded. We live in hope that our human adversaries and those who openly rage against the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ might through our kindness, friendliness or charity be able to come to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, knowledge through Him of the God we cannot see and thereby be saved.
My own issue on this 2nd Sunday of Advent 2010 – Year A is a certain puzzlement over all those pagans and others out there who are not exactly raging against God, but whom we may lovingly class as ignorant, but perhaps better merit the judgment of being condemned as indifferent, as immersed either in the glitter and passing glow or sunk in the mud of this life. What are my or our possibilities for repeating the success of John the Baptist in preparing the way of the Lord and shaking these folks up? Is there…? There must be hope for some of them and somehow it’s up to me to extend to them the Baptist’s hand, isn’t it? How can I effectively work to bring them into the fold? Is the diet of locusts and wild honey, the rough and scant camel hair and leather covering still what legitimates the prophet and precursor today? Do my lack of sunken eyes, of bones sticking out all over and of being generally unkempt, do my extra pounds discredit me as a prophet or put me elsewhere than where the Lord would have His witnesses and shepherds toiling in the vineyard today?
The 2nd reading from this morning’s Office of Readings comes from a commentary on Isaiah by Eusebius of Caesarea, where among other things this Father of the Church notes:
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God. The prophecy makes clear that it is to be fulfilled, not in Jerusalem but in the wilderness: it is there that the glory of the Lord is to appear, and God’s salvation is to be made known to all mankind.
It was in the wilderness that God’s saving presence was proclaimed by John the Baptist, and there that God’s salvation was seen.”
? ? ?
It would seem pretty certain for Eusebius that all of the YouTube followers’ excitement over surprise Alleluia Choruses from G.F. Handel in Philadelphia shopping malls or Canadian fast food restaurants is misplaced. Jesus Himself asks His listeners to reflect on the “what did you go out in the wilderness to see?” The Lord Himself points to John the Baptist as central or prime to the economy of salvation.
Where is the “wilderness experience” in cradle-to-grave Catholicism and what does it teach about the urgency of never leaving the flock untended? Think of Ezekiel’s condemnation of shepherds not caring for the flock or of St. Augustine condemning the dumb dogs who will not bark in defense of that flock! If I am not obliged to cry out as John the Baptist did, leading people forth to that place of encounter with the Lord Who comes to rule the earth, how is this supposed to happen such that the sheep are separated from the goats flocking to the modern day equivalent of King Herod’s banquets? The distinction, the separation, judgment must come! Is our lack of identification with John the Baptist evidence of a lack of genuine faith, hope and God-like charity? Are we dulling, dumbing down or otherwise delaying the day of His Coming by not leading people out of the doomed metropolis, out to Him in the wilderness? Are we standing by idly as countless tumble over the precipice never thinking that life for us, created in the image and likeness of God, is everlasting and the choice between a joyful and a sorrowful eternity is by us to be made?
I think one aspect of the answer has to do with going back to our passage from St. Paul and looking closer at the matter of where our hope lies. Wicked old King Herod found his support in Christ’s day from the upright citizens of Jerusalem among the members of the party of the Sadducees, those who refused belief in the resurrection, eternal life, angels and all which went beyond the here and now. The Exodus from Egypt into the wilderness as more than a people’s sacrifice for the sake of self-determination was nonsense to them and the fact that they would not go out or heed John’s message sufficed to place them with the goats of Herod’s table on Judgment Day.
The puzzle then and now for me, however, is in seeing clearly just how the embrace of John the Baptist’s radical self-renunciation can be/must be the declaration of hope in the Lord Who comes to rule the earth. Expectantes beatam spem et adventum Domini Jesu Christi… Does turning to the Lord mean turning my back on something, and what? John the Baptist’s call to repent was the purest possible statement from a young man to the effect that I am willing to renounce all for the Lord of my life. It finds an eloquent echo in the conversion experiences of men like Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Ignatius of Loyola. The radical enthusiasm for the Gospel of so many of these saints immediate followers should give us pause as well.
The dawn of the informatic age heard clamors for making things “user friendly”. That particular mantra is gone as Iphones and Ipads have become child’s play things, but I fear that what might have been a legitimate demand for facilitating word processing, changing channels on a home entertainment center or streaming your every thought and action online, might be having an adverse effect on how we look at life and its demands, and therefore on how we present the Gospel. The Pharisees had their alliances with the Sadducees for whatever political reasons despite the fact that they were going in opposite directs in terms of God, time and eternity. That is probably the best explanation as to why John the Baptist, why Benedict of Nursia and why many others over the years have abandoned Jerusalem or Rome and its compromises to look for the Lord where He has chosen to come… to await him in the wilderness of self-denial and repentance.
It’s up to me to respond to his call and do my part to hasten the coming of the day of God!
Properantes Adventum Diei Dei