by Fr. Tommy Lane
Advent. Longing for God. The Church gives us one entire season to get more in touch with our need for more of God in our lives. In our innermost depths, we have within us a longing for God that can be satisfied only by God. Every time we pray, we answer that need for more of God in our lives. Many of the Psalms (e.g. Ps 63) help us get in touch with that longing for God deep within us. Church architecture, especially the soaring Gothic cathedrals, spreading from northern France in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, give expression to this longing for God deep within us. The masterpieces of art also express this longing for God. For centuries, the palette that artists used for painting was the Bible. This longing for God leaked into everyday speech. In Gaelic, you greet someone “Hello” by saying, “Dia Dhuit” which means “God be with you.” The response is “Dia’s Muire dhuit.” “God and Our Lady be with you” or “Dia’s Muire dhuit agus Pádraig,” “God and Our Lady be with you and Patrick!”
Longing for God is the background, or context, to the first reading today. The prophet, Second Isaiah as he is sometimes known, was asked by God to speak words of comfort to the exiles in Babylon five centuries before Christ to assure them that the exile was about to come to an end. “Comfort, give comfort to my people…Speak tenderly to the Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her service is at an end.” (Isa 40:1-2) The people in exile needed to hear words of comfort from God. They just needed God. They too were experiencing the longing of Advent. They were told to prepare the way of the Lord in the desert (Isa 40:3); in other words, God would accompany them through the desert back to Jerusalem. In answering their need for comfort, God said he would gather them like a shepherd gathers lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom (Isa 40:11). In that position, lambs could not be any closer to the heart of the shepherd. The people in exile needed God and God wanted them close to his heart.
Five centuries later, once again, there is talk of preparing a way for the Lord but this time it is John the Baptist who is preparing for Jesus (Mark 1:1-8). What a sight John the Baptist was! He wore a simple garment made of camel hair and a belt. He had not gone shopping in Macys or JCPenneys! His diet was just as Spartan as his wardrobe; locusts and wild honey. He lived in the Judean desert and he certainly looked like a desert man. Despite the strangeness of the man, Mark tells us that people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him. Mark does not say some Judeans and some of the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going to him; he says people of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going to him. John the Baptist was making an impact. Why? People believed he was a prophet and since he dressed the same way as the prophet Elijah whom they expected to return before the Messiah (see end of the last chapter of Malachi, different chapter numbers in different translations), some may even have thought he was in some way Elijah who had returned to prepare them for the Messiah. But people flocked to him because he answered their need for spirituality and contact with God. If people were flocking to John the Baptist in the desert, it was making a statement about a lack in their lives and spirituality despite the temple in Jerusalem. There was something missing in their lives and John was now answering that need. They were missing God. They needed God and went on pilgrimage to John the Baptist. They were experiencing the longing of Advent. They were longing for Jesus, and John was preparing them for Jesus, the mightier One, coming after him.
Preparing the way of the Lord, like the exiles in Babylon, like the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, in the lives of some of you here has taken the form of entering seminary. Seminary is a long Advent preparing to meet the Lord. Then you will meet Jesus in a particular way when, please God, your bishop will impose hands on you and pray the Prayer of Ordination and then you will, like John the Baptist, serve the Word of God. St. Augustine (Sermon 293:1-3), meditating on the figure of John the Baptist, reflected on the nature of priestly ministry (see p164 Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith: The Church as Communion by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger ). John the Baptist is the voice in the desert, Jesus is the Word. The voice carries the word from one person to another. The priest is to be the voice for the Word. To use the words of John the Baptist in John 3:30, “He must increase, I must decrease.” The voice has no other task than to pass on the Word. The relationship between voice and Word helps show the relationship between the priest and Jesus. The priest is the forerunner and servant of the Word like John the Baptist. In your future ministry, you will remind people that God wants his people close to him like a shepherd gathers lambs in his arms and carries them in his bosom, close to his heart. Please God, the words of the Gospel today will in the future be applied to you as you become the messenger before Jesus:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.’
© Fr. Tommy Lane 2017
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