Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbours, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain.
Those are moving words because they promise what is idyllic. But what is that promise based on? Listen again:
A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD. Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted.
And so, that wonderful, idyllic, prospect is opened up for mankind because a Saviour is to come among us, upon Whom the Spirit of God will rest and Whose delight will be in the fear of the Lord: Jesus of Nazareth, to be born of the Virgin by the Holy Spirit, Son of God and Son of Man.
And yet, when He did come, He was not accepted nor even acknowledged by His People; indeed, His rejection was so violent and so degrading that His presence among men was not able to work any saving change for the great majority of those who saw but did not recognize Him, who heard but would not listen to Him, even though some had waited long and been ardently expecting Him. Vindication against Rome and before the nations had become their supreme motivation and -- as we can see with fanatics the world over -- having someone, something, to hate is a great spur for commitment or even sacrifice. Jesus’ mission, on the other hand, was for their personal righteousness before, and corporate witness to, the God of their fathers Who had sent Him. Jesus could only work a change for people if they would allow Him, first of all, to make a change in them individually. That is why we heard the prophet say in the name of the Lord:
The earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, for the Gentiles shall seek out the Root of Jesse.
God’s Kingdom of glorious peace would only come when the earth -- that is, all the peoples on earth beginning with Israel, God’s Chosen People -- were full of the knowledge of the Lord: not knowledge about the Lord, but knowledge of the Lord bestowed on them by the Root of Jesse: knowledge suffused through and through by love, such as could only be given to those who would humbly and perseveringly seek to find, or rather allow themselves to be found by, the Person of Him sent in the fullness of time by the Lord, the ever faithful-and-true God of Israel.
Bearing these things in mind we should not be too surprised when, on turning to the Gospel passage from St. Matthew, we heard John the Baptist say to certain Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him while he was administering his baptism in the Jordan:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
What could have brought the Pharisees and Sadducees together? Little that promised good for John, certainly. The Pharisees -- the ‘separate ones’ as their name proclaims -- lived their lives according to rules and regulations fitted for the priests in the Temple of Jerusalem, rules and regulations handed down by their own oral traditions; and they prided themselves on the rigour and detailed fidelity of their application of those rules. The Sadducees, on the other hand, really were current priests of the Temple, and, as a whole, they were social aristocrats who did not accept the oral traditions of the Pharisees. What therefore enabled such naturally opposed and mutually disdainful factions to unite on this occasion? Surely, only the fact that both regarded John the Baptist with like antipathy!
For his part, John knew how to mix-it with such enemies; for by calling them a ‘brood of vipers’ he declared them to be -- according to a byways (not highways!) Jewish tradition -- descended from Cain and born of the union of Eve and the Serpent!! We Christians have, however, in the Acts of the Apostles (28:3, 5), have a much more historically accurate picture of the significance of the appellation ‘brood of vipers fleeing from the coming wrath’ when we recall the experience of St. Paul shipwrecked on the island of Malta:
Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper -- driven out by the heat -- fastened itself on his hand. He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm.
Brood of vipers indeed, because both were fixed in their ways and both were proud: one of their reputation for holiness in the eyes of the common people, and the other for their deeply cherished positions of power and privilege; and yet both were as one in their delight at the reverence shown them by the ordinary people: people they were meant to serve but whom they held in very low esteem as a whole. And in this respect the Pharisees and Sadducees showed themselves to be vipers indeed by their pseudo-holiness and pseudo-dignity: for the Pharisees were more faithful custodians of their human traditions than faithful interpreters of God’s law, more solicitous for their standing in the eyes of the people than sincere guides for those people along the paths of humble devotion before God; while the pomp and circumstance of the Sadducees, far from showing forth the dignity of Israel’s ancient calling as the Chosen People, was totally dependent on and subservient to the current-day Roman power and politics. Such pretence by their civil and religious leaders de-railed the response of ordinary Israelites to the message of John the Baptist even though he was preparing the way of the Lord by advice easy enough for them to understand and put into practice:
“He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” To the tax collectors he said, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” Likewise to the soldiers he said, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
Such teachings were easily accessible to anyone wanting and willing to ‘repent’ as St. Matthew tells us John’s initial proclamation required:
John the Baptist appeared preaching in the desert of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!’
Repentance was a very hard subject to preach even for one as great as John the Baptist! So unexciting for the senses and so humble in its performance, repentance was easily dislodged from the awareness and appreciation of simple people by the easy-to-see, carefully honed and sought-out, pseudo personal holiness of the Pharisees, and could be quite overwhelmed by the ceremonial pomposity and Temple-based dignity and power of the craven Sadducees, who despite all appearances, were totally subservient to the occupying Roman power.
Dear People of God, the poisons affecting, debasing, and preventing true religion among the people in Jesus’ time are still with us and still seducing many today: pseudo-holiness and political correctness!!
The great and ultimate fulfilment of salvation through the final coming of God’s Kingdom as foretold by the prophet, the forerunner, and by the Lord Jesus Himself, is not something that can be brought about by human endeavour it can only be humbly aspired to and prepared for, before being gratefully received when freely given by God Himself to those filled with knowledge of the great mercy and goodness of the Giver, and of the saving love of their Redeemer.
St. Paul tells us that:
Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, but so that the Gentiles (also) might glorify God for His mercy.
And so, we Gentiles can and should learn from the experience and failings of ‘the circumcised’, as Paul explicitly tells us:
Whatever (is) written (is) for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
Above all we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus in the Scriptures, our ears attentive to His words resounding in Mother Church, and our hearts open to and longing for His most Holy Spirit’s guidance and inspiration as children of God.
We must, therefore, not allow the integrity of our response to Jesus’ call to repentance this Advent to be waylayed and possibly de-railed by modern pseudo-holiness and political correctness; and for that purpose we must pay careful attention to and learn from what happened among the Chosen People of Israel those many centuries ago.
The Pharisees were truly devout but they could never forget themselves or deny their pride in, and desire for, a public reputation proclaiming them to be ‘the best at their job’; that is, they wanted to be commonly known and generally appreciated as personally holy individuals and members of an influential and closely knit group whose traditions were the surest guides for the people in the ways of holiness.
Alas, however, they were substituting holiness in the eyes of the people for holiness before God.
The Sadducees were not even aiming for holiness of a religious nature so much as security and approval for their politically correct attitudes and actions. They sought to ‘accepted and acclaimed’ -- by those who really mattered to them -- for their sagacity, influence, adaptability, perhaps even, at times, for their priestly dignity and social charms …. Attitudes and abilities, some of which at times, and under certain circumstances, could possibly have proved both helpful and laudable; but which, in those called to be first and foremost priests and shepherds for God’s People, bring Jesus’ words to my mind:
You justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts; for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God. (Luke 16:15)
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, in this season of Advent we are walking anew to what is before us, setting out with fresh steps towards what is most beautiful and promises great joy. As did Joseph, let us walk with Mary, the Jewel of Israel, and for us, the Queen of heaven and Our dear Lady, our supreme mother and unique sister. But, with Joseph, let us take great care, this time of ourselves who are carrying in our soul’s sanctuary of mind and heart the still-to-be-born Son of God. Let us not turn our eyes to seek some easier path, but let us always keep them fixed most lovingly on Jesus proclaimed by Mother Church, let our eyes look most confidently for the lead of God’s Spirit of Truth and Love, as we endeavour, as true children of God the Father, to serve, and indeed to love, all our brother and sisters on the way. But in all things and above all things, let us ever desire and aspire to be with Jesus, so as to be formed in Him and in His likeness by the Spirit, for the glory of our God and Father.