Wednesday, November 30, 2016

HOPE'S BASIS, AND ITS FRUITS


Dec. 6th, 2016: Second Sunday in Advent Year A.
Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15;4-9; Matt. 3:1-12.
AIM:  To instill hope by showing how the celebration of God’s mighty acts assures us of their continuation and inspires us to work for justice.
 
          Why do we Christians still read the Old Testament? Hasn’t Christ’s coming made those dusty old books obsolete? Many people ask those questions. Paul answers them when he writes in our second reading: “Whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by patient endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The Scriptures Paul is talking about are the Jewish Scriptures, which we call the Old Testament. The New Testament did not exist in Paul’s day. 
          We’ll look in a moment at just what Paul meant when he said that the Old Testament scriptures encourage us to have hope. First, however, we must note that the Old Testament is incomplete. It looks forward to a fulfillment in the future.  Today’s first reading, describing the ideal king from the family of David, is a good example of this future orientation. The king Isaiah writes about in that first reading had not yet appeared. Isaiah looked forward confidently to his future coming.
          The New Testament proclaims that in Jesus Christ this future has arrived. John the Baptist makes this claim in today’s gospel when he says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Even the New Testament, however, which proclaims the fulfillment of all the old promises of God’s decisive intervention in history, still looks forward to the completion of this intervention, when Christ returns in glory at what the first letter of Peter calls “the consummation of all things” (4:7). 
          Both parts of the Bible, Old and New Testament alike, look forward. Yet both also constantly recall the past by telling and re-telling the story of God’s “mighty acts” on behalf of his people. Central in the religion which Jesus learned
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from Mary and Joseph, and at the synagogue school in Nazareth, was the recalling of Israel’s most important feast, the Passover, the greatest of all God’s mighty acts: the deliverance of his people from their oppressors in Egypt.
          Trapped between the advancing Egyptian army and the waters which blocked their flight, God’s people had experienced their own deliverance, and their enemies’ destruction. Recalling and celebrating that mighty act in the Passover ritual each year, Jesus’ people believed –and faithful Jews believe today – that the unique, unrepeatable event from the past becomes, through its liturgical celebration, a living reality in the present.
          Why is it is important for us to know this? Because we Catholics believe the same about the Eucharist. The Mass is not merely a mental recalling of the Last Supper and Calvary. It makes these unrepeatable past events, through which Christ won our salvation, a living reality in the present. The reliving, through liturgical celebration, of the past event assures us, the worshipers, that the God who delivered his people from certain death long ago remains today – and for all future time – the same: the God of the impossible, whose characteristic work it is to bring life out of death.
          That is why the Scriptures, Old and New Testament alike, delight to recall God’s “mighty acts.” They reveal who God is: not just who he was, but (because God cannot change) who he is today, and will be for all time to come. At the heart of biblical faith is the conviction that God’s mighty acts in the past contain the assurance of further saving acts in the present and future. For us Christians, therefore, the Old Testament will never become obsolete. Its record of God’s acts in the past gives us hope for the present, and points us toward the future.
          We are not to await that future passively, however. Too often Christians have cultivated a false “other-worldliness” which treats this world as a ‘vale of tears’ through which we must trudge mournfully to get to heaven. Such a spirituality removes the hope we derive from God’s past mighty acts from this world to heaven. Karl Marx, the intellectual father of communism, called that kind of religion “the opium of the people.” And in that at least Marx was right. 
          Of course biblical faith teaches that the complete fulfillment of hope belongs not to this world but to heaven. But because we are already, through baptism, “citizens of heaven”, as Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians (3:20), we are called to establish “colonies of heaven” here on earth. 
          Answering this call means working for the justice and peace described by Isaiah in powerful images in our first reading. There Isaiah prophesies a descendant of the great King David who will “judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth.” His reign, when it comes, will establish world peace, symbolized by Isaiah’s prophecy that under this ideal king “there shall be no harm or ruin ... for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the water covers the sea.”
          When the Pope and the bishops speak, therefore, about issues of social justice – protecting the unborn and the aged, the poor and oppressed, and correcting unjust structures of society which produce these evils – they are not mixing up religion and politics, as their critics inside the Church and out like to claim. People who contend that religious leaders should speak only about spiritual matters would make religion into a purely private affair – something like stamp collecting, bird watching, or jogging – for people who happen to like that kind of thing. A religion that never ventures out of the four walls of the church into the rough and tumble of the public square is irrelevant or worse. Karl Marx was right to call such a religion the opium of the people: something used by the powerful to blindfold people to injustice here and now by promising them pie-in-the-sky-when-they die. Only to the extent that we are willing to work here and now for the justice and peace of which Isaiah speaks in our first reading do we become people capable of receiving that perfect justice and peace which come from God alone.
          In the gospel we heard John the Baptist’s summons to this task: “Repent ... Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Luke’s gospel describes the kind of repentance John demanded. The well off were to share with the poor. Tax collectors were to stop exploiting people. Soldiers must not steal or accuse people falsely. (Luke 3:10-14) In John’s day such demands were just as controversial and unpopular as statements about social justice by the Pope and our bishops are in certain quarters today. 
          John warned that those who reject his summons to repent are like a tree which is cut down because it bears no fruit; or like the chaff which is burned up once the wheat, which alone has value, has been separated from it. Translated into modern terms John’s teaching tells us that our attitude toward the world in which we live is determining, even now, whether we belong to the chaff which the wind blows away; or to the grain which the Lord of the harvest, Jesus Christ, will gather into his heavenly Father’s barn.
          Here in the Eucharist we celebrate and relive our Passover deliverance at Calvary: the ground of our hope for the present and for the future. As the Eucharist ends, Jesus, our high priest, sends us forth into his Father’s world with the commission described by Paul in our second reading: “with one accord [and] one voice [to] glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” by working for his justice and his peace.