The coming of the Lord will mean a new order

By  Fr. Scott Lewis, S.J.
  • December 1, 2006

Second Sunday of Advent (Year C) Dec. 10 (Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:3-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6)

It is always a struggle to remember the past, for there are so many ways of remembering. We can remember with bitterness, anger, fear or even shame. This was probably the situation of the exiles in Babylon for whom this prophecy was given. The horror of the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation to Babylon was still a vivid memory. And then there was the sense of helplessness and degradation that results from being captives.

But the prophecy speaks of another sort of memory, and that is the remembrance of Israel by God. The memory is one of love, and the beautiful images of Jerusalem that result is the way God remembers Jerusalem and thinks of her. The captives are encouraged to shed the old garments of misery and put on new ones — the robe of righteousness, as well as the beauty and glory of God. The prophecy's goal is the healing and transformation of the collective self-image of the Babylonian captives and granting them a new beginning. They are encouraged to think, feel and act as ones precious and beloved in God's eyes, and to believe in themselves as well as in God.

There are many terrible memories from our own times: genocide, massacres, wars, abuse and injustices of all sort. They should be remembered, especially so that they will not happen again, but in the right way. Bitter and angry memories can lead to a desire for revenge or ruin the lives of victims. But if we remember ourselves as God does, we can begin the healing that comes with cloaking ourselves in God's beauty and glory. And remembering others as God does can go a long way toward healing, forgiveness and experiencing new life. Our greatest obstacle to healing and new life is the difficulty in thinking of ourselves and others in new ways.

Paul knew well of remembering, and he always thanked God each time he remembered the community in Philippi. Does that mean that he never had problems with them? That is doubtful. He focused on their strengths, what was good about them, and kept that in mind. Apparently, they were a loving community, so he encouraged them to continue to grow in that love. Focusing on family members, friends and even difficult people with thanksgiving to God is one way in which we can heal relationships and memories.

The voice of God often comes from the margins. John the Baptist was not part of the religious establishment, and he must have been viewed even by his followers as a bit odd and extreme. And he was never one to mince words, as his fiery denunciations attest. He and others like him are enemies of the status quo and the conventional wisdom, as well as "comfortable" religion. No "cheap grace" here, only true repentance will do. He expects upheaval and tribulation, but Jesus will introduce a new and less violent way of encountering God. It is ironic — and possibly intentional — that the story of John comes after the list of the power elite. Emperors, kings, governors and high priests are not of prime importance in God's history, but the history of those who respond to His call is. John is far from their power struggles, and the path that he is preparing before the Lord is made of very different stuff. There is a hint when he insists that "all flesh" shall see the salvation of God. "All" is about as inclusive as one can get — he means all of humanity. The coming of the Lord is going to mean a new order. Gone will be boundaries and barriers to separate people, and God will not be the possession of any person or group.

But the mountains to be levelled and the valleys to be filled are formidable, for they represent our accustomed manner of thinking, our heritage of opinion, tradition and collective memory. "Repentance" in Luke's parlance means a complete change of mind and heart, and what better description could we have of conversion? During Advent, a searching inventory of our lifestyle, opinions, likes and dislikes, fears and prejudices can be a humbling but rewarding exercise in preparing a way for the coming of the Lord. The best highway for the Lord's arrival is an open heart and mind.

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