Offered by Fr. Seamus:
Second Sunday of Advent – 2016 + Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Luke 3:4, 6
Growing up in a devout Catholic family, and attending a large Catholic elementary school where the girls were taught by the Sisters of Mercy and boys by the Christian Brothers, I always loved the liturgical seasons, especially this season of Advent. Every classroom had a crucifix on the wall, a statue of our Blessed Mother in the corner, and a large framed picture of Pope Pius XII. We had a religion class every day and during Advent we loved hearing about St. John the Baptist whose life and message always seemed so mysterious to us.
Since we all lived in apartment houses in the Bronx, it was difficult for us to picture John the Baptist, living alone in the desert – in clothes made of camel’s hair, a leather belt around his waist, eating only locusts and wild honey. In the third grade, Brother Patrick showed us a painting of John the Baptist by Caravaggio. We loved it but were surprised that John the Baptist looked so young.. He was our favorite advent image as we prepared for the coming of Jesus at Christmas.
But when I was in the Fourth Grade, only 9 years old, – something happened that seemed to change everything. I remember it like it was yesterday. It started out as a normal Sunday morning. My sister, my mother and I, all dressed up in our Sunday clothes, were standing at the door waiting for my father, so we could walk together to church, as we did every Sunday. We had not yet had any breakfast, not even a sip of water since we all wanted to receive Communion. My father, who had been listening to the radio, suddenly said, “Wait … quiet, be still … listen to this…” and as we did, I noticed my father’s face was very somber, very serious. I couldn’t hear exactly what was being said on the radio, there was too much static, but after my father turned it off, he looked at my mother, and said very sadly … “The Japanese just bombed Pearl Harbor; America has been attacked; we’re at war.” It was the Second Sunday of Advent, Dec 7, 1941, 75 years ago.
And as we later learned, 2400 Americans were killed at Pearl Harbor and over 1000 wounded. And that attack led to the United States entry into World War II. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called it a “Day of Infamy.” A few years later, when the war ended in 1945, well over 60 million people had been killed worldwide.
Much has changed since that “Day of Infamy.” We’ve had 12 different presidents, and six different popes. But Sacred Heart school is still functioning. Each classroom still has a crucifix, a statue of our Blessed Mother and a picture of Pope Francis. And the students are still learning about the mysterious John the Baptist. Now, more than ever, we need to listen to his Message. Pope Francis, as he laments the crimes, massacres and destruction in the world today, says we are experiencing “a piecemeal World War III,” and has condemned the idea of waging a war in the name of God. John the Baptist’s message hasn’t changed; it still resembles the message of Isaiah and the prophets of old. Like them, he calls for a return to righteousness, to lives of integrity, to relationships rooted in honesty and respect. He still speaks against presumption and arrogant reliance on one’s religious origin, against complacency and the shirking of responsibility, against disinterest in the welfare of others simply because they’re different in some way.
John the Baptist is a powerful image in a world such as ours, where we are instructed to get what we want with the least amount of effort, where we are encouraged to disregard the needs of others and take care of ourselves first. If we want to draw closer to Christ Jesus, John’s spirit and power must first come to the desert of our soul and “prepare a perfect people for the Lord.” It is the Baptist’s spirit that makes the rough places of our heart smooth and straightens out its paths.”
Isn’t there a John the Baptist in each one of us? He is the Lord’s immediate precursor, or forerunner, sent to prepare his way. Are we listening to the Baptist’s voice? Is there, perhaps, too much static in our lives? He’s there, crying in the wilderness of our hearts, hearts longing to love and be loved; he’s there, preaching in the desert of our souls, souls longing for justice and peace. Can we hear his voice? “Wait … listen, quiet everyone … be still. “ The Baptist’s face is very serious; his message solemn, as he says, “I am not worthy to carry his sandals … He must increase, I must decrease … Repent, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”