Saturday, December 9, 2023

What John the Baptist knew: The truth is attractive


James T. KeaneDecember 08, 2023

St. John the Baptist mosaic, courtesy of iStock.

A Reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent

Find today’s readings here.

John the Baptist appeared in the desert
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
People of the whole Judean countryside
and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John was clothed in camel’s hair,
with a leather belt around his waist.
He fed on locusts and wild honey.
And this is what he proclaimed:
“One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

I have a friend, a Jesuit priest, who used to complain when he was younger whenever he would hear people refer to him as “Father What-A-Waste.” (The passage of time has saved him from such an unhappy fate, as I remind him now and then.) He didn’t like being called that, or at least said he didn’t, not just because it objectified him but because it bespoke a presumption that celibacy and religious life are only for people not attractive enough to compete in a world of dating and marriage. But he also had a funny and somewhat shocking story to tell: When he was a novice, he mentioned his complaint to a fellow Jesuit, who laughed and sent him to look up the reasons the early Jesuits had for rejecting candidates—as reflected in the Jesuit Constitutions and Complementary Norms.

And there it was: A potential impediment to admission was “in regard to the exterior, a lack of bodily integrity, illnesses and weakness, or notable ugliness” (No. 185).

Harsh. Way harsh. And why even say it? Well, one presumes that the early Jesuits felt that ugliness didn’t attract people, and evangelists need to be attractive. You can’t spread the good news if the first thing people notice when they meet you is that you’re as homely as a hedge fence, and you can’t convince anyone to turn away from sin when you’re as ugly as it.

Today’s Gospel reading gives the lie to that presumption, though. Before we even meet Jesus, we meet John the Baptist, who lives in the desert, is “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” and “fed on locusts and wild honey.” If we presume he was a Nazirite (from the description in Lk 1:15), he also would never have shaved. The image makes me think of Tom Hanks’ character in “Castaway,” a dirty, hairy dude with a bad wardrobe. Maybe not someone to bring home to mom and dad.

John the Baptist knew that God speaks most clearly through the gritty and the humble.

Advent in the Time of War


Palestinians men rest near a house damaged in an Israeli airstrike in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, November 7, 2023 (OSV News/Mohammed Salem, Reuters).

This year began with one war in the headlines and ends with two. The war in Ukraine, so shocking when it began in February 2022, is now a dismally familiar feature of the news, grinding on as destructively as ever with no end in sight. The war in Gaza, which began less than two months ago, has already changed the Middle East forever. The governments of many countries, including ours, had been hoping that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—as old as Israel itself—would simply disappear over time as younger generations of Palestinians resigned themselves to statelessness. Now we know better. Despair may sometimes lead to resignation, but more often it leads to rage. Meanwhile, beyond the headlines, other conflicts carry on largely unnoticed in this country: civil wars in Sudan and Myanmar, savage gang violence in Haiti. Behold, the world brings us bad tidings, again and again. Peace on earth? Not now or anytime soon.

In such times, Advent’s beautiful message may appear unrealistic or even impertinent. Herod’s massacre of the innocents seems more relevant. Karl Marx famously described religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions…the opium of the people.” Even many believers would agree that this is an all-too-plausible account of religion. Whatever else it may be, faith is a comfort, and sometimes the most appropriate prayer—or the only possible prayer—is a sigh. Does that make religion nothing more than an opium? We shouldn’t be too quick to answer no. Wherever it is offered as an excuse to ignore “soulless conditions,” wherever the earthly suffering of others is glossed over as a mere prelude to heavenly compensations, religion does indeed function as an opium, and those who offer it on these terms are little better than drug dealers. The burden is on us to show that faith is not just a form of escapism or, as the kids say, a “cope.” It may get us through life (if we’re lucky), but it does not get us around life’s central problems. And if it does, or seems to, then we’re doing it wrong.

Our country suffers from a deficiency of compassion about immigrants


Our country suffers from a deficiency of compassion about immigrants


Cardinal Gregory discusses pope's synodal vision, need for a welcoming church

Cardinal Gregory discusses pope's synodal vision, need for a welcoming church

Second Sunday of Advent: God's promised future

 Scripture for Life

December 9, 2023

Second Sunday of Advent: God's promised future

Friday, December 8, 2023

The wonder and surprise of the O antiphons


Tired of failing, again and again? Let God start over for you.

Terrance KleinDecember 06, 2023

Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash

A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 2 Peter 3:8-14 Mark 1:1-8

Starting over is not so hard. But starting over, all over again, is.

The first time you begin again, you do so with some confidence that having learned from your mistakes, you will get it right the second time. This is true whether we are talking about love or a golf swing. But once you fail again, you begin to question yourself rather than your goal. Maybe this is more than you can master. You certainly do not enter your third or subsequent attempts with your initial confidence. It has expired.

That is one of the saddest things to hear in the confessional: souls saying that they are discouraged with themselves. Ashamed even, that they should be back again, confessing to the same sin.

Shame is never of God. Healthy guilt, a recognition that one has done wrong, yes; but shame, no! That is what is so distressing, someone ashamed of themselves. The claws of the Evil One have sunk deep into the soul. I want to say: “But at least you are here. At least you know the sin, and you are humbly confessing it. Think of those who do the same without knowledge or regret.” But confession is not the time to consider the sins of others but only one’s own.

St. Mark, however, has words of comfort for those who sit in the shadows of shame. He opens his Gospel with words of consolation, though the problem with Scripture is that, having heard it before, we think that we have already heard it. Listen again.

Look at the opening noun of the Gospel, “the beginning” (Ἀρχὴ). Mark gets us, the cowered and the cynical. He knows this is not the first beginning, which is why he immediately explicates our cause for hope:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God (1:1).

Letters to the editor on women and the synod