Saint Mary of the Angels homilies and reflections

Homily, December 8, 2013, Echoes of the Voices of John the Baptist, Fr. Grégoire Catta SJ

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Matthew 3:1-12 / Isaiah 11:1-10 / Ro 15:4-9
Sunday, December 8, 2013 – St Mary of the Angels

Today, the liturgy gives us the figure of John the Baptist. “A voice of one crying out in the desert!” The season of Advent is not merely a preparation for Christmas, it is a significant liturgical season in itself: the time for deepening the great joy of expecting God’s coming, the time for cultivating our profound desire of the kingdom of God, the time for realizing how much we are called and the whole world is called to be reconciled to one another and to God. Advent is the season when we celebrate day after day three comings of Jesus Christ: his coming 2000 years ago, his presence in our midst (in the sacrament of the Word, in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and in the sacrament of the poor and marginalized), his final coming at the end of times. Advent is the season of expectation, an expectation that is hope and not a form of blind optimism, because it is solidly rooted in the belief that God’s kingdom comes.  

And so, in this season of Advent, the figure of John the Baptist is given to us, pointing to the mystery of God’s coming. For sure this is quite an impressive figure. He lives in the desert. He has a rather rustic or even wild way of dressing up. What he eats will certainly not qualify for a gourmet diner in Paris… He is impressive as well because he draws to him a lot of people from the whole region. Even more impressive, his speech is nothing like flattering or seducing: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence for your repentance.” Whoa! This is pretty tough. I’m not sure I like to be addressed like that! But what is fascinating is that crowds of people continue to come. John the Baptist is an impressive figure. He challenges people. He points toward the one who will come after him, he points to the Kingdom of God that requires conversion, repentance and change. People listen and they indeed commit themselves to this conversion by receiving the baptism from John. “

A voice crying out in the desert: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

Clearly this is still relevant for us today. We know how much we are struggling with sufferings and divisions, with violence and injustices, with personal sins and social sins. But because Jesus came 2000 years ago and he is still with us today, although in a different manner, we are sure that those struggles are not the final word: the final word is the coming of the Kingdom, the final victory of God. It starts now but will be fully accomplished only at the final coming of Christ. That’s why, being a time of expectation, Advent is a time of great joy and hope. And the voice crying out challenges us to enter in this logic of the Kingdom overcoming divisions, injustices, sins, violence, entering the logic of the Kingdom through conversion and repentance.

Turning to the recent events in our world I see two echoes of the voice of John the Baptist, two other impressive figures able to challenge us and to call us to conversion individually and collectively. Two voices who in a certain ways are continuing the work of John the Baptist. Two voices: Nelson Mandela and Pope Francis.

We all have heard lots of stories and testimonies about Mandela in the last couple of days. An impressive figure in many ways but especially as a man of reconciliation. By his words and by his life, Mandela teaches and challenges the whole world on reconciliation. What impressed me most when I read his autobiography a few years ago was his personal journey towards endorsing non-violence as the mean to overcome the horrendous apartheid system, and the fact that during the 27 years he spent in prison he never allowed resentment or hatred to take possession of himself. On the contrary he had always in mind that a lasting peace built on justice necessarily required reconciliation. He had all the reasons, once elected president to hate or at least ignore those who had been his oppressors, but he made the choice to work tirelessly for reconciliation. He put that in symbols like wearing the rugby jersey of the South African team, iconic symbol of a sport that had remained all white for years, during the final of the world cup organized in the country in 1995. Yes, when we consider today the legacy of Nelson Mandela, I think he challenges us about reconciliation. Not cheap and false reconciliation that tries to ignore the past or call for an impossible immediate forgiveness, but reconciliation founded in restoration of justice and the deep desire to restore relationships. Nelson Mandela is the voice that cries over all our situations of divisions, the little and the big ones, in families, in communities, in countries or in the world, and tells us: some reconciliation is possible! Let us convert our hearts to the faith in reconciliation, and let us work tirelessly for reconciliation. After all the core of our faith is the belief that we are all brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

The second voice continuing the work of John the Baptist, today, I think, is Pope Francis inviting us first to be renewed in the joy of the Gospel and second to spread this joy everywhere. This is the key of the great exhortation that he issued 10 days ago about evangelization. By the way, I think it is a very beautiful text that is really worthwhile to read. It’s so easy today to find it, for free, online. For sure it’s long. But my advice would be, just pick up a few pages, with whatever time you have, starting with the titles that attract you most and read them. It’s Francis’ style: not complicated, often full of images and striking formulas, it is really meant for all! Just a selection: “They are Christians whose lives look like lent without Easter.” “An evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral.” Many topics are addressed, from reform of the Church to economic justice, from how to do a homily to dialogue with other religions but I’m keeping here with the key opening all the doors: being Christian is being in the joy of experiencing the mercy of God and this joy has to be shared with all others around us. This is what evangelizing means: by all sorts of means, in words and deeds, evangelization is the sharing of the joy of being loved and saved by God. Taken seriously those words are challenging for all of us. They call for conversion, personal and collective: the conversion to keep our eyes on Christ, the conversion to become truly missionaries.

The voice of Mandela, calling for reconciliation. The voice of Pope Francis calling for the joy of evangelization. Let’s make those voices, like John the Baptist’s voice, crying out of the desert, be not lost in the desert of our indifference. Let’s listen to those voices like the big crowds who came to the Jordan bank in the time of John the Baptist. The Lord has come, the Lord is with us, the Lord will come again. Let us rejoice, and let us commit ourselves to this ongoing conversion that builds the Kingdom of God: reconciliation and joyful evangelization.

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