St. Mary of the Angels Sunday Advent III C 12/16/12
Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
My Brothers and Sisters,
Our God is, first of all and above all, a God of love and compassion. At the present moment, I am sure that God is like
Rachel weeping for her children . . . because they [are] no more." With love and compassion our God embraces tenderly grieving
parents and families, teachers, frightened children and a deranged wielder of weapons. But, next, I suggest that our God is
a God of imagination.
Why do I speak of God’s imagination? Because without imagination there is no hope, and without hope, there is no
joy. There is no joy in Newtown, Connecticut today. And, many, I am sure, feel their hope shattered. Can they even begin to
imagine a life without their little one? Yet, today’s Scripture readings urge us, over and over, to be joyful. The prophet,
Zephaniah says, "Shout for joy," "Sing joyfully," "Be glad and exult in your heart." Our responsorial hymn begins, "Cry out
with joy and gladness." And St. Paul encourages us, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice." Whether in
the days of Zephaniah or in the days of St. Paul or now, this Advent, in Newtown or Roxbury, the message is the same: Let
your hearts be joyful! How can this be?
The basis of joy, of course, is the presence of God. God alone brings hope to disaster. Look at Israel.
Israel, as you know, was a nation which had suffered a long history of tragedy and oppression: first, by Egypt, then, by
Babylon, and, in the time of Jesus, by Rome. In each instance, the people spiraled downwards in despair. They could not imagine
a day of freedom, a future of joy. But God could.
In Egypt, with plagues and miracles, then dividing the sea and providing manna and water in the desert, God brought his
people to the River Jordan and across it into a new future.
Centuries later, once again, Israel found herself exiled in Babylon, again without joy and without hope. But, into this
bleakness the prophets, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Baruch, Isaiah, the voices we have been listening to this Advent, seeing a different
future with God’s inspiration, spoke a poetry of hope: The day would come when the wolf and the lamb would lie peacefully
together; so also, the calf and the lion, and the cow and the bear. The day would come when spears and swords would be hammered
into sickles and plowshares. The day would come to take off the robe of mourning and put on the splendor of glory. The day
would come when rivers would open on the heights and fountains in valleys and the wasteland bloom. And that day did come when
Cyrus, King of Persia, defeated the Babylonians and sent the Israelites home.
Now, for the third time, Israel groans under a foreign power, Rome. Once again, an oppressed people have lost hope. Uprisings
have been cruelly crushed. The powerful princes of Judea have compromised with Rome. Temple worship is corrupt and the temple
priesthood bogged down in rigid rituals. Again, no joy, no hope.
Then, John comes along. Remember: he belongs to the priestly temple class; his father, Zechariah, was a leader there. John
lives in a secure position of privilege. But, he leaves the Temple. There is no future there. He goes into the desert, perhaps
to the Qumran monastic community. No future there either. That community is too separated from the people. John has seen the
oppressed weariness of the people and has witnessed their yearning for a new chance with God. He must, somehow, connect with
In the desert, we are told, the word of God came to John. John’s imagination comes alive, and he taps into the imagination
of the people. He goes to that very place at the Jordan where the Israelites of the Exodus had crossed into the promised land.
It is there, he proclaims and acts, preaching a repentance for the forgiveness of sins and baptizing with water. The repentance
is not about the sins people commit; it is about turning wholeheartedly back to God. And the water in which he baptizes is
not a lake or pool; it is the Jordan, the strong flowing river of memory, a vibrant symbol of life. In effect, John is saying,
"We have come to the Jordan again, and we are going to cross the Jordan again, and we will begin again a new life with God."
Ordinary people listened. Ordinary people came to be baptized: the middle class and the poor, tax collectors and soldiers.
But, they can’t imagine what a new life would look like. "What should we do?" they ask. John imagines for them in a
practical, down-to-earth way: share what you have, treat everyone with respect, act justly. Neither John nor the people know
where this is heading. All they know is that God is here. John promises that one mightier than he is coming. Expectations
rise. The people have hope. They begin to feel that lightness of spirit which we call, joy.
What does this story say to us today? Both in our country and in our Church we, too, walk with an oppressive weariness.
Too many lack hope. Too little imagination promises a hopeful change.
For so long, too many people have despaired about health care, legal citizenship, equal marriage rights, freedom from violence,
protection of nature, more equal distribution of wealth. Friday’s massacre underscores the nation’s atmosphere
of aggression, greed and violence. Can the wolves and lambs of politics imagine a way of working together in harmony for true
peace and for the genuine good of all people?
And, for so long, our Church has been responding to today’s complex issues with yesterday’s tired answers.
Robert Mickens, in a recent London Tablet, laments that the New Evangelization comes down to simply "repackaging the old forms
for a new generation." Is not the reconfiguring of the Archdiocese of Boston really just re-arranging the deck chairs? And
women and theologians, imagining new ways of being church, find themselves silenced or dismissed. If people no longer find
joy in their Church, could it be that there are no poets or prophets left to stir their spirit? What has happened to the rich
imagination of our Catholic Tradition?
But, we too are invited to re-imagine our own life, this Advent. Are we stuck in any relationship or routine which does
not lead to hope and joy? Are we living in peace with ourselves and with our neighbors? How can we imagine something different?
As the people asked John, "Where do we begin?" Perhaps, sitting quietly in prayer or reading Scripture. Maybe, listening to
a hymn or a song. Sometimes, a poem or story can help. Or, talking with a friend, or taking a long walk by the River. Our
God of imagination speaks personally to our imagination, especially in times of crisis, as we have seen. But, we have to take
time to watch, to listen and to dream. What newness, then, might our God want to show us, individually or as community, as
we continue our Advent journey to Bethlehem?
Kenneth J. Hughes, SJ.
Brighton. Mass. 12/16/12