This is my homily for Sunday 5 December 2010, for the on-campus Sunday Mass (7:30 p.m.) of Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) Teaneck, NJ. Mass is every Sunday during Fall 2010 + Spring 2011 semesters. I am the Catholic campus minister for this campus and for the FDU Newman Catholic Association.
Isaiah 11:1-10 | Psalm 72 | Romans 15:4-9 | Matthew 3:1-12
[__01__ ] In the wilderness, we encounter inclines and angles to the land. Sometimes, these can be quite extreme and sudden.
What this means --
• Too sudden an incline up … get stuck
• Too sudden an incline down … fall …
John the Baptist is experienced in the back country, going up and down hills.
It would seem he is interested in a very sudden change of life – repent, prepare the way of the Lord, eat locusts and wild honey, wear a camel’s hair coat.
John the Baptist appears to be extreme, everything about his manner, his tone of voice is extreme. Is the Holy Spirit also inviting us to make an extreme change?
John the Baptist’s extreme lifestyle attracts the notice of others.
POSITIVELY - Positive support comes in the form of those who visit him, the many people from Jerusalem, Judea, and the Jordan region come to the Jordan River to hear him, to repent of their sins, to be baptized.
NEGATIVELY - On the other hand, we might imagine that the Scribes and Pharisees – what are they doing in the woods ? What motivates them? Perhaps, they close his movement down. They are similar to the park rangers and police who would tell you not to stay here, camp here … you do not belong here.
And, the Pharisees and Sadducees do not want any extreme changes either. They favor their position, things as they are. They might not encourage you and me to change either.
We understand John the Baptist is a person comfortable with
• Extreme austerity
• Extreme poverty
However, he is also a person of extreme integrity, of extreme charity, of extreme love for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Our Lord praises John the Baptist and all those who are willing to seek this poverty and simplicity.
Jesus says in next Sunday’s Gospel of John:
“[there is] none greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.”
In this way, Jesus is praising John the Baptist for his extreme devotion and faithfulness … and praises all those who will go to extremes for the Kingdom of Heaven.
[__03___ ] Does this require us to move into the woods, off the grid, no electricity, phones, television, internet?
In other words, if we were to climb the mountain (the mountain mentioned in our first reading from Isaiah…), should we climb that mountain at an extremely sharp angle?
The danger with climbing – on 2 feet or a mountain bike or 4x4 truck – is that at an extreme angle … we could get stuck easily.
At an extreme angle coming down … we could slip, lose our balance.
[__04__] How might we imitate John the Baptist during our Advent worship and meditations?
First - John the Baptist invites all of us to repentance.
John Paul II observes that we might find it hard at times to say – I repent – I am sorry. This seems too extreme, similar to going up straight up an incline or down a hill.
Is it really necessary to be so extreme, to admit that I am wrong? Could not there be other factors – other people – to blame .. who made me who I am?
John Paul II further writes:
“It is clear, however, that Christian penance will only be authentic if it is inspired by love and not by mere fear; if it consists in a serious effort to crucify the " old man " so that the " new" can be born by the power of Christ; if it takes as its model Christ, who though he was innocent chose the path of poverty, patience, austerity and, one can say, the penitential life.”
So, our repenentance, our conversion may throw us off balance, may seem extreme at times. However, this is also an invitation to make gradual and long-lasting changes in our lives.
[__04__ ] Our penance and repentance is the first way to imitate John the Baptist. There is a second way. However, this second way really depends on the first. The first way of penance and repentance is necessary for all of us.
However, we might also observe that John goes into the wilderness to protest. This is what revolutionaries and rebels do. They go into the woods to gather resources.
Then, they re-emerge later, stronger.
What is John protesting?
Dishonesty, corruption, hypocrisy.
And, he withdraws from civilization to do this . He is seen as an extremist, attracting the notice of the Pharisees and Sadducees. What are they doing walking around in the backcountry? I thought they favored concrete sidewalks and places of honor at table and greetings in marketplaces.
Perhaps, they are here to observe, capture some information, put it on the internet and close down John’s ministry.
John protests them too.
Against whom do we protest?
We are also called to protest dishonesty and hypocrisy and corrupt behavior.
There are two ways to register these protests - as Cardinal Newman observes – the choice of method depends on the situation. And,
I think both require penance and prayer.
First, we can protest silently.
When we keep ourselves free from sin, we are silently protesting others who do not. It is very difficult (sometimes, impossible) to correct those who are in authority (a boss, for example). However, we can protest silently by our own example.
Also, we can protest when we choose to against the crowd, when we resist peer pressure which we might encounter – at a a party, from a group of friends. Resisting peer pressure also can seem an extreme choice … it may be so much easier to slide along with the rest. It may lose us some popularity points.
However, this is where we are strong. In Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians we read–
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
Secondly, we can protest in words.
Also, if we do have the absolute need to protest someone else’s actions …we might also consider the “extremes” here. The extreme good here is that we are so interested in seeking the good of another ..that we are willing to risk some negative reaction, willing to risk my own loss of popularity by speaking up.
This is the extreme we seek. The extreme we want to avoid is to suggest that I am extremely honest or better than you. Truly, this is not the case. All of us are sinners, all of us need God’s grace.
If we were to speak to someone – in protest – we also can benefit by prayer.
Recognize that this encounter (or confrontation) is not something we do every day.
Pray for the other person, before, during and after the conversation.
And, in doing so, recognize that we are all to seek a new extreme, a new model … but that we also are moving there gradually, gradually slowing leveling the ground, to find a new road, to prepare the way of the Lord. [__end__]