The word of God comes in the wilderness
(Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6)
Introduction to Mass
The theme of the readings today is that God is coming - the main theme of the Advent Season - and that we should prepare to welcome him by what the gospel calls "repentance": a fundamental turning-around of the goals and purposes of our lives. The austere, solitary figure of John the Baptist makes his appearance, announcing the start of a new phase in God's plan of salvation.
To begin Mass we think of the ways that we have evaded the gospel call to repentance and we ask God for his pardon and strength.
In that short gospel passage we just listened to, from the third chapter of Saint Luke's gospel, Saint Luke begins his account of Jesus' ministry by referring to two parallel streams of history.
On the one hand he mentions some of the important figures of the time: the Roman Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas and his brothers Philip and Lysanias, the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. These men were the actors on the stage of history in their own time, as, for example, George Bush and Tony Blair, Jalal Talabani the Iraqi president and Pope Benedict are in ours.
But then Saint Luke moves into the arena of salvation history: not the activities of human beings but the activities of God and his involvement with his creatures: "...the word of God came to John the Son of Zechariah, in the wilderness" (which is to say, in the Judean desert).
The great men of world history - the conquerors, the empire-builders, the men driven by greed and the desire for power over others - we can find out all about their struggles and achievements in the history books.
But if we want to find God we have to look elsewhere, because he always works out his plans, makes himself known and draws people into the circle of his holiness, far from the corridors of power, in quiet and obscurity, and with people who are small and insignificant in worldly terms.
It's always been part of the Christian faith to believe that although the world is full of selfishness, malice and violence - and always will be - God is quietly at work, in all sorts of unseen, unperceived ways, planting the seeds of his Kingdom among those who have sensed his presence and responded to his call.
My impression is that many people today - including many Christians - seem to have lost that conviction. They get upset by "all the evil in the world" as they tend to call it, and they question the existence of a God who doesn't intervene to prevent wars and natural disasters and create a perfect, happy world.
It's partly an outlook that arises from the value that our western culture places on material wealth and comfort. The poor of the world, the main victims of wars and disasters, don't express resentment against God because life is imperfect and precarious. It's only in the economically-developed world that people feel outraged by a God who doesn't appear to share their notions about the importance of material comfort and security.
Against the background of that worldly outlook, it's useful to remind ourselves that the Bible never says anywhere that truth and justice and love will triumph over the power of human sin within the history of this world.
What Christ taught, and what the first communities of Christians believed passionately, was that behind all the wars, the rise and fall of worldly empires, behind all the instances of exploitation and cruelty, God is present and active in his own hidden way, moving the world towards a goal that lies beyond history - a goal that most people don't see, because their vision is dominated by self-seeking goals of their own.
Everything St. Paul says in the second reading today rests on that assumption: that the present world, and its concerns, are purely temporary. The important thing, Paul says, is to improve our knowledge of God and deepen our perception of his activity so as to prepare for the world to come.
How should we do that? Today's gospel reading, again, points us in the right direction.
Saint Luke presents his readers with the figure of John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, a man with a unique role to play during a unique period in God's relationship with humanity.
John felt called to withdraw from ordinary society into the desert, into an atmosphere of solitude and silence, and into a manner of life that was stripped down to the bare essentials, materially, in order that he could deepen his perception of God and hear what God had to say.
This was a unique vocation, as I say, but the truth is that anyone who wants to heighten their sensitivity to God, discern God's will, and become receptive to God's influence, has to embrace the basic facets of John's calling to a greater or lesser extent.
In the same way that God doesn't strut the corridors of worldly power but reveals himself on the margins, among the small and powerless people, he also doesn't communicate by shouting, but in a whisper.
So if we want to hear God's voice we have to withdraw from the noise and bustle of ordinary life, from the distractions of human company - not permanently perhaps, as John did, but certainly regularly and often.
One of our frailties as human beings is that we're very dependent on noise and activity and on the company of other people. We quickly become restless and disorientated when these things are removed.
Even among religious people I think there's often a resistance to quiet and stillness and a conviction that the real business of Christian living is producing all sorts of good works, planning all sorts of worthy activism. This can be an evasion, a way of avoiding the direct contact with God we need to make regularly to foster genuine spiritual growth.
We all need to find ways of going into the desert, to use that image. We need to create opportunities to be alone with God, because it's only when we stop talking and stop rushing about doing things that God takes root in us.
The fortunate thing is that after we've made the initial effort, the restlessness tends to subside and our appetite for stillness grows: instead of being something we shy away from it becomes something we feel the need for. Our attachment to various things - objects, activities, distractions - fades away and our attachment to God burgeons out.
I certainly think myself that this is a basic area of Christian life that we need to take steps to recover in the present-day Church. We need to remind ourselves that God doesn't want us to offer him all sorts of grandiose plans and great achievements that we've decided he should feel glorified by. Before that stage he wants us to listen, to attune ourselves to his will and to be ready to do what he communicates to us, if we calm down long enough to listen.
So those are the two main lessons I would take from the readings today. One, God is always quietly at work in the history of the world, but not through the world's conquerors and the men of power.
And second, if we want to raise our awareness of God's hidden presence, we need to get rid of the noise and bustle that make up so much of our lives and spend some time, at least, doing what John did. We need to go and wait in the silence of the desert for God's word to come to us.