2nd. 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 mankind’s wounds and succour our world’s suffering, and for that He needs entrance and welcome into the minds and hearts of men and women everywhere, most especially though into the hearts and minds of every Catholic and Christian, for no one is holy before the Lord and pseudo-religiosity is among society’s deeper wounds. Let each of us, therefore, try to open our minds and hearts to Him at this our Advent Sunday Mass 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, though unwittingly, imitated today by many people:
They shall not harm or destroy on all My holy mountain.
Many indeed are those who, when speaking of themselves, use such expressions as, "I harm no one, I wouldn’t deliberately hurt anything", thereby witnessing to and seeking to justify their own actions and ideals. At funerals, of course, like praise is lavishly bestowed on the dead.
Now, if we take such encomia at their surface value we can see what advocates of modern society in today’s more advanced countries are claiming, for there seems to be no doubt that our ‘local world’ is, as a whole, improving: human beings, animals, and even the environment, are being afforded ever more ostensible respect and attention, and this, surely, would seem to be evidence of moral progress, for in times past, kings, emperors, and rulers waged dreadful, slaughter-full, wars, often enough for merely personal pride and national advantage, whilst at other times, when storms raged, floods came, and crops failed, thousands, even millions of people died, and nothing was done by the rest of mankind. You might say that was because others did not know what was happening, and that is undoubtedly true in so far as radio and, more especially, television have made so great a difference. But that is far from the whole truth, because even in more recent times, the potato famine in Ireland, for example, was known and more or less politically ignored, the world-wide slave trade was and still is blatantly practiced and protected for profit and power, whilst the Nazi pogroms and concentration camps were staffed and served, tolerated and furthered for years by wide-spread complacency and self-serving. Today, on the other hand, 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 equal dignity of women is more widely recognized and accepted. In ultra-modern societies the poor are supported, the disabled are being integrated more, and the mentally incapable or retarded are regarded as subjects to be cared for, not nuisances to be buried in oblivion or otherwise disposed of. In all these respects our ‘local world’ seems, indeed, to be much improved, and such advances are considered to be the result of purely human endeavour by those who think that to do no hurt, no harm, is the panacea for our world's needs, and the true guide to human happiness.
However, there are other, disturbing, indications, which seem to contradict such a rosy picture: never in history have there been such a plethora of murderously successful leaders such as Hitler the racist, Lenin the ideologist, and Stalin the opportunist tyrant, to say nothing of the Far Eastern demagogue, Chairman Mao, and any number of petty but murderous Asian and 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 blatantly practiced but also openly justified by its protagonists; money is worshipped and the poor are ruthlessly used by international financiers; thuggery and brutality carried out by drug barons and their minions ruin more lives world-wide than even Hitler or Stalin were able to kill; finally, corruption and venality are everywhere to be found infecting iconic sporting events, while rogue states such as North Korea, Iran, Isis, and Somalia are constantly making bloody headlines.
Dear People of God, such considerations should lead us to appreciate that perhaps our world’s apparent moral progress is not the same thing as real spiritual progress; and that is indeed the case, for, even at its best, 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 very severe 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 18:11s.)
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 of the workings of evil on the one hand and the application of chosen remnants of former Christian faith on the other:
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.' " (Ezekiel 8:12)
You have set our iniquities before You, our secret sins in the light of Your countenance. (Psalm 90:8)
Harm and hurt are more readily done in the dark. And so, although the light of day and the glare of public awareness can guide and promote human sympathy by exposing and thereby discouraging criminality, nevertheless, 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. Wide-spread in human society today are latent and hidden 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 addictions and common fears -- merely more cunningly disguised and more deviously, desperately, and viciously, promoted and carried out.
What did the prophet Isaiah say about not harming, not hurting, on God's holy mountain? Listen:
They shall not harm or destroy on all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea.
Hurt and harm, destruction and death, he says, will only come to an end -- as distinct from being cleverly hidden, ignored, brushed under the carpet, or passively tolerated -- 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 whatsoever of obeying or glorifying God in what they do: rather they believe that the good they do proclaims their own righteousness and humankind’s self-sufficiency, without dependence upon any God, or any need of Faith and Church.
Men and women of today must, therefore, come to recognize that the true nature of sin is not to be found only in human actions, but also and above all in the human heart, otherwise there is no chance that any number of apparently sincere endeavours will effect any real change in our modern world; for all do-gooders ultimately seek that ‘good’ of which they themselves personally approve, whereas salvation and blessing for the whole of mankind only follow an awareness of human sinfulness and personal repentance, and as a gift from the God of all goodness and mercy , through Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit.
No amount of individual self-justification can bring authentic peace to humankind, as we might all more clearly appreciate by recalling passages exemplifying human longing and God’s promise of fulfilment heard in today’s reading from 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 shall browse together with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall graze; together their young ones shall lie down, the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the viper's den, and the child shall put his hand on the adder’s lair. They shall not harm or destroy on all My holy mountain.
The prophet solemnly told those whose hearts he would set a-yearning by such words, that One alone, the promised Messiah, could bring about that state of affairs on earth:
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 understanding, a Spirit of counsel and of strength, a Spirit of knowledge and of the 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 fairly for the land’s afflicted; He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall slay the wicked. Justice shall be the band around His waist, and faithfulness a belt upon His hips.
People of God, let us prepare to glory in our God and Lord Jesus Christ this Advent because through Him alone – GOD made Man -- can salvation and sublime fulfilment come mankind’s way. He is, indeed, both our God and our Saviour Who shared our humanity, and in that pure flesh received from Mary, also shared our lot by dying on the Cross for our sins; and, thus freeing us from the strangle-hold of death, He rose again from the dead and ascended to Heaven in that very same flesh now glorified by the Holy Spirit, that He – ever One with us --might go before us as our Head and Lord into heaven and into the presence of His Father, to claim and prepare a place for us there, with Him and in Him, as adopted children of the eternal God.
Apart from Him and His Gift of the Spirit, even in those who seem to be the best of human beings, sin is never absent, though, at any particular moment it may well be actively hiding itself from those it chooses to use, so as not to be publicly recognized for what it is and what it does. Dear People of God, Jesus Our Lord and our faith in Him, His sacraments and His Church, are totally unique, prepare well therefore, prepare very well, to rejoice this Christmas, not, indeed, in empty earthly baubles but in the beauty and majesty, the eternal validity and glory, of our God-given Catholic Faith.