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3rd Sunday of Advent (17.12.17)
The incompleteness of a mumbled ‘Sorry’.
Over-usage has devalued some English words. For example, what does the mumbled word “sorry!” communicate today? In the hustle of city life ‘sorry!’ may often cross people’s lips as they weave through the crowds. Do people mean what they say or has an over usage of the word rendered it almost meaningless? Behavioural evidence would point to such words being spoken without meaning because people’s behaviour has not changed.
For people who believe in God, genuine contrition involves elements of both the heart and the soul. A grace-infused soul is sensitive to what maybe an injustice to another, who is also made in God’s imagine and likeness. A respectfulness of heart would wish to make amends for any hurt shown in the eyes or response of someone wronged.
This 3rd Sunday of Advent our Gospel extract comes from the Evangelist, St. John (1:6-8,19-28). He tells how the preaching and teaching of his namesake, the Baptiser, had met with two quite distinct responses, from within his own people, when he proclaimed:
"I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, 'make straight the way of the Lord,'" as Isaiah the prophet said.”
John called himself a ‘voice’ in the desert. His chosen ‘pulpit’ was indeed the desert yet not too far from the River Jordan. However, could the desert to which John the Baptiser referred have been the spiritual desert in the hearts and souls of so many of his fellow Jews? While there would have been loud, and abusive voices ranged against him, John’s voice would have been heard, despite the barrage of opposition, because ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail’ (Matt.16:18).
A parent can hear their child’s cry among a sea of crying voices, so too a spiritually impoverished soul can hear the Truth of God’s call among all the false noise in this world. John the Baptiser was filled from his mother’s womb with God’s Spirit:
“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth herself was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!…” (Luke 1:41-42)
John’s proclamation drew the attention and attrition of those Jews who respected The Truth.
But John the Baptiser’s notoriety had become sufficiently disturbing for Jerusalem’s Jewish leadership to have sent investigators. These questioned the Baptiser about his authority for preaching and teaching knowing that he had no leadership endorsement.
The Truth, spoken from a graced heart and soul, has a resonance that calls forth a response in others. The words of Pope Francis, for example, are likely to find acceptance where the words of some political leaders do not. John the Baptist’s preaching produced such a dual effect. On the one hand, a genuine contriteness of heart in many ordinary Jews and, on the other, an active hostility from the Jewish leadership at that time coupled with a wariness from the Roman authorities. The same pattern would emerge when Jesus of Nazareth began his ministry after King Herod had murdered John the Baptiser.
It would have taken courage and a sure belief in God for those Jewish men and women to show a public positive response to John’s preaching. They knew their religious leaders exercised power. Ordinary Jews could have found themselves ostracised, treated as outcasts, if the synagogue leadership maligned them.
Therefore, those Jews who went ‘the extra mile’ in making visible their contrition, by having John pour River Jordan water over them, truly gave evidence of the depth of their contrition and commitment.
Contrition involves more than saying the words ‘I am sorry’. Contrition remains incomplete where it is not evidenced by proportionate amendment and a realistic commitment to avoid that sinful situation for the future. Our words of contrition need confirmation that is expressive of our newly re-graced state of heart and soul. So, for example, in our nightly examination of conscience we could bring to mind people whom we may have hurt by word or thought and pray for them. So, too, should somebody have been impoverished by our behaviour, we should endeavour to make good their loss and, if that cannot be done, make a donation to charity comparable to the injury.
The Jerusalem Jewish leadership, further agitated by the support John received from the people, continued questioning John. John gave them this answer:
"I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie."
John’s reference to “one among you whom you do not recognise ..” would have instantly alerted a people brought up on God’s promise of a Messiah and this despite their own infidelity to God’s Covenant. However, their mental picture was of a powerful, warrior-like leader able to free his people from oppression. An unkempt man, even one with a powerful voice, clad in animal skins and surviving on locusts and wild honey, arriving out of the desert did not fit their preconception. Nevertheless, John’s message was alive with the Truth that the hearts and souls of contrite Jews detected and, as a consequence, he won their respect.
Their political compromises rendered the Jewish leaders unable to hear The Truth in John’s words. For them, John posed a worrying threat of destabilisation to their web of tenuous links with the Roman authority.
The Truth (God) and Satan, the father of lies, are in diametric opposition. Satan fears the fullness of The Truth that he knows he cannot overpower. Though aware that his time and his and our world of exile, is drawing towards its end, he still relentlessly seeks to despoil God of human souls.
Satan has shown himself highly skilled in personalising the temptations he sets before us because he knows our weaknesses. We, in truth, know how successful he can be. But Satan is keenly aware that the human soul can hear the call of The Truth over and above whatever barrage of noise he can assemble.
Christians have been brought up on the promise of Christ’s return as King and Judge at the end of the world. At that general judgement of all humanity, (John 5:28-29) each of us will see The Truth and, in the light of that Truth, be aware of the consequences of the personal choices we have made throughout our lives. At that point, whatever in our life is unresolved or incomplete remains so, eternally. The time of amendment will have ended. Therefore, all believers need, on a daily basis, to practice contrition in word and deed in order to be beneficiaries, eternally, of Christ’s Reconciliation.
Would we, had we been among the Jews listening to John the Baptist, have remained standing on the river bank mumbling ‘sorry’? Or would we have joined those of faith and convincing contrition who stepped into the clear water of the Jordan? How we live our faith today is indicative of how we might have behaved then!