The Utopian vision in Isaiah’s first reading, gives us some idea of what was wrong with the world in the time this text was developed. The writer is longing for the world to be ruled by “wisdom and understanding…counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge an the fear of the lord”. This vision involves a radical sort of justice that looks beyond the shallow and the popular to the deep experiences of the oppressed. Nature itself will put off its need to compete and destroy each other with animals lying together peacefully and safely.
In 2016 a rationalist age of markets and worship of “the economy” and the image of each special individual this both soothes and attracts us but also fails to seem achievable. Of course lions eat lambs, that is natural and we ascribe to “nature” a whole host of negative human behaviours besides. But within the Jewish roots of our Christian tradition is an idealistic call to challenge the current view of “nature”, the essentialist and inevitable acceptance of injustice and inequity. As the people of God, our work is to achieve a more peaceful, wise and just world. The advent call is the call by a vulnerable baby that in Matthew’s gospel overstepped national boundaries to be recognised by foreigners (magi), and hated by the status quo (Herod), that is our Christmas movement to become uncomfortable for the unjust powers of the world and to break boundaries in radical inclusion and openness. If we are lions, we need to pull back from devouring; in so far as we are lambs we need to be courageous and visionary.
Even though the psalm talks about a “king” bringing God back in line with the ruling class, there is an idealistic view here of a king who is ruling for the poor and afflicted. Kingship in this ideal is not the exploitative relationship we often see in the privileged and the powerful of our world, but is a radical challenge to the greedy and the exploitative. “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever”.
This is a useful ideal to aspire to in so far as we are “kings”, in our relationships of leadership and power in our worlds. How do we treat our own children? Our elderly? Our employees or student? How do we “rule” over a group of people, who do we advocate for in our decision making and what values underpin our pronouncements? This is also an ideal worth holding our own leaders to. No-one can rule or govern forever but people and the times they live in go down in history as more or less peaceful and abundant.
The second reading from Romans encourages us to go to the scriptures for instruction, seeing the scriptures as sources of hope and practice. It also advocates harmony between believers, which at times gets interpreted by the powerful in the church as a sort of obedient group-think, but I don’t believe the idea here is to stifle debate and questioning, just for everyone to be considerate and ready to accept compromise so that life and liturgy together may be possible.
The reference to the “circumcised” and the “patriarchs” is broken open by a sudden appeal to the Gentiles, to be welcomed and “at one-ed” with also. The writer here claims that the idea of broadening out the inclusive vision was already written into the heart of the tradition, so the sort of change that accepts the challenge of the other is in no way a departure from the tradition we hold dear but the most faithful following of it. Who are the “Gentiles” of our time? Who do we seek to keep out? Muslims? LGBTIQ+ people? Women who have a vocation to ministry? Single mothers? It is someone who challenges our sure knowledge about the right way to live and the hegemony of our own way of life.
Having focused ourselves on justice and inclusivity by these readings, the gospel sweeps in the voice of John the Baptist giving us our advent call to “repent”. People often seem to think repenting means feeling sorry or guilty but in fact it isn’t a feeling at all it is an action of achieving radical change within ourselves, of turning around and facing the opposite direction to the negative one. Last advent I reflected on the unacknowledged need in me for so many years to “repent” of my heterosexuality, which is not to imply that people who are heterosexual are wrong, but that it was wrong for me and not what God had created me for, I always knew this deeply but in the cowardly way of a child began a path of obedience to my cultural context instead of my calling. Repentance is finding those spots of wrongness inside us, not necessarily “sin” in the sense of doing wrong, but the blockages from God’s grace and hope and the inability to respond to God’s call to live what we were created.
John the Baptist is concerned with more than personal identity-work of course, he is a huge threat to the status quo which is why he is ultimately put to death. But he also reminds us that it is our repentance, the ways we choose to radically alter our way of life toward hope and justice that prepares the way for Jesus/Wisdom to enter the world. John’s radical asceticism is unattractive to the modern gaze. He wears itchy, dirty clothing and eats an inadequate diet. I don’t want to emulate quite the minimalism of his lifestyle but instead I want to let him refocus me on what really matters, not always having the finest materials next to the skin or the prettiest appearance or the most tantalising foods (no not even at Christmas when we hear the call of the “economy” to spoil ourselves and others in this way) but what deeply matters is the repentance that leads to radical justice and hope, the world-altering growth that welcomes into the world God’s Word.
John also reminds us to be wary of relying on our religious pedigree, our alliance with an institutional church and reminds us the survival of the institution is NOT THE POINT since God can raise up believers from the very stones (a theme that is alluded to at Palm Sunday and other places). Our call is to “produce good fruit as evidence of [our] repentance” to actualise God’s reign not to get right a series of rituals and self-aggrandisements. John gives us a terrifying view of a purifying, cleansing, judging God to come- speaking back into the first readings preoccupation of fear of God. The point I take from that is not that God is terrifying and punitive but that there is an implied threat/warning to those who continue to oppress others, especially in God’s name. We can read all the grace and forgiveness and rehabilitation of the sinner in the mission of Jesus (and I do take comfort from this) nevertheless a call to repentance remains and it is a strong demand from God not a half-hearted suggestion. We may repent imperfectly and be forgiven but we outright ignore God and God’s beloved poor (the earth may be included in this) at our peril!
In conclusion I circle back to that beautiful vision of the first reading, of buds and shoots and new growth where we thought we saw decay. The jacarandas were late to blossom this year but they got there. Life wants to spring up and live abundantly. Let us embrace life as we enact and expect the radical transformation of the world from the vulnerable baby who is also the Word.