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Sunday, 5 December 2010

Second Sunday of Advent (A)

(Isaiah 11:1-10; St. Paul to the Romans 15:4-9;
St. Matthew's Gospel 3:1-12).

Advent is the season given us by Mother Church to prepare the way for Jesus' coming:  He wishes to heal our world’s suffering, and for that He needs entrance to the minds and welcome in the hearts and of men and women everywhere, even, and especially, the hearts and minds of every single Catholic and Christian; for no one is holy before the Lord, and pseudo-religiosity is among the world’s deepest and most painful sores.  Let each of us, therefore, try to open our minds and hearts to Him at this our Sunday gathering and pray that His Spirit may rule in us, our families, our society and our world.
In our first reading from the prophet Isaiah we heard some words which are frequently imitated today by people of all persuasions:
            They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain.
Many, indeed, are those who, when speaking of themselves, use such expressions as, "I harm no one, I hurt nothing", thereby witnessing to and justifying their own life styles.  If we try to take their words in the kindest way and on the worldwide scale, we can see what our modern society is claiming, for there seems to be no doubt that our world is, as a whole, improving.  This would seem to be evidence of moral progress: with human beings, and even animals and the environment, beginning to be afforded more respect.
In the past, kings, emperors, and rulers have waged dreadful, slaughter-full, wars, often enough for merely personal pride and national advantage.  At other times, when floods came and crops failed, thousands, even millions died, and nothing was done by the rest of mankind.  You might say that was because others did not know what was happening, but that is far from the whole truth, because even in recent times the potato famine in Ireland, for example, was known and more or less politically ignored, while the world-wide slave trade was blatantly practiced and protected for profit and power.  Today, however, the nations of the world are regularly urged, and frequently consent, to join together in providing help where and when needed.  Children are no longer used for cheap labour with such impunity as was formerly the case, and the equality of women is more widely recognized and accepted.  In modern societies the poor are supported; the disabled are beginning to be integrated more, and the mentally incapable are subjects to be cared for, not nuisances to be buried in oblivion or otherwise disposed of.   In all such respects our world seems, indeed, to be much improved, and these advances are frequently considered to be the result of purely human endeavour by those who think that to do no hurt, no harm, or even better, to do good all around, is the panacea for our world's needs and the surest guide to human fulfilment.
However, there are other, disturbing, indications, which seem to contradict such a rosy picture.  Never in history have there been such murderously successful leaders as Hitler the racist, Lenin the ideologist, and Stalin the opportunist tyrant, to say nothing of the Far Eastern demagogue, Chairman Mao, and petty African tyrants.  Closer to home and in days of peace, politics and politicians are suspect, being openly mistrusted by large swathes of the population; terrorism is not only practiced but also openly justified, while money is worshipped and thuggery practiced by drug barons and their minions who ruin more lives world-wide than even Hitler or Stalin were able to kill.  Corruption and venality are everywhere to be found infecting iconic sporting events, while terrorism and rogue states such as North Korea, Burma, Iran and Somalia are constantly in media headlines.
Such considerations should lead us to think that perhaps our world’s apparent moral progress is not the same thing as real spiritual progress; and that is indeed the case, for morality is not holiness: mere morality can mask supreme pride, whereas holiness is not possible apart from fundamental humility.  The Scribes and Pharisees were most moral, despising the licentiousness and cruelty of both Roman and Hellenistic society; and yet you will remember from the Gospel reading that John the Baptist said some seemingly cruel words to the Scribes and Pharisees coming to him for baptism:
            Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
What was John targeting with such severity?  It was their racial pride, their presumed personal righteousness:
            Abraham is our father. (John 8:39)
The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men -- extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' (Luke 18:11-12)
What then is the Christian truth about our world's progress? 
It would seem that, to a large extent, the progress, which has been noted, is due to greater public awareness:
Then He said to me, "Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel do in the dark, every man in the room of his idols? For they say, 'The LORD does not see us.' "  (Ezek 8:12)
You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your countenance.   (Ps 90:8)
Harm and hurt are more readily done in the dark.  And so, while the light of day and the glare of public awareness can guide and promote human sympathy as they also expose and dissuade criminality, only the light of God’s grace discovers the pride and self-love which lie so often hidden in the depths of men's hearts, and which so frequently stain their most noble efforts and motivate their most abominable crimes.
Today we have instant publicity, world-wide awareness, and therein a primary reason for our apparent moral improvement; the counter indications, on the other hand, show that wide-spread within human society today there are latent forces capable of causing terrible harm and great hurt, forces which, far from being fundamentally changed by the threat of possible exposure, are -- being personal and private -- merely more cunningly disguised and more deviously promoted .
What did the prophet Isaiah say about not harming, not hurting, on God's holy mountain?  Listen:
They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
Hurt and harm, destruction and death, he says, will only come to an end, as distinct from being ignored or brushed under the carpet, when mankind is filled with knowledge of the Lord, when men and women are willing to humble themselves before God and seek to direct all their intentions along the way of the Lord Jesus, for the glory of Father, and the good of their neighbour.
Our modern do-gooders, however, and those who so confidently proclaim that they do no hurt, no harm, to anyone, often enough have no intention of obeying or glorifying God in what they do: rather they believe that the good they do proclaims their own righteousness and humankind’s sufficiency without any dependence upon a God, a Faith, or a Church.
Until men and women of today come to recognize the true nature of the sin that is to be found not only in human actions but also in the human heart, there is no chance that any number of sincere endeavours will effect any real change to our world; and until it is recognized that salvation only comes with repentance, and as a gift -- from God alone, through Jesus, by the Holy Spirit -- no amount of self-justification will be able to bring peace to the heart of humankind.
We can all appreciate the peace pictured by the prophet Isaiah:
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.   The cow and the bear shall graze; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.  The nursing child shall play by the cobra's hole, and the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper's den.    They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
But the prophet solemnly told those who heard him that One alone, the promised Messiah, could bring about that state of affairs on earth:
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.  The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD.    His delight is in the fear of the LORD, and He shall not judge by the sight of His eyes, nor decide by the hearing of His ears; but with righteousness He shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked.    Righteousness shall be the belt of His loins, and faithfulness the belt of His waist.
People of God, let us recognize where we should look for salvation and fulfilment: it can only come to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Apart from Him, even in those who seem to be the best of human beings, sin is never absent, only not seen, not publicly appreciated as such; and the best works of merely human sincerity and concern have no power to promote that salvation which is human kind's supreme good and which can come only as a gracious gift from God our Father in the name of Jesus, His Son and our Saviour.