Witnesses to Speak for the Light
(Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28)
Introduction to Mass
The author of the gospel passage this Sunday, St. John, often resorted to the symbolism of light and darkness to describe the salvation brought to us by Christ. Our sinful and self-interested impulses create a situation of moral and spiritual darkness around us. But God has always looked for ways of projecting the light of his holiness and justice and love into our darkness, and when we turn to God we then have to become carriers or agents of his light ourselves.
Prayer over the Advent Wreath
Father, all powerful Lord of Light, bless our Advent wreath and its candles. May this Season be a time of preparation. Help us to reflect on the power of light to dispel darkness in our world and in our lives. May the increasing light of these candles brighten our minds and hearts to be steadfast in faith, joyful in hope, and untiring in love, so that we are ready to receive again in true peace, our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. We make this prayer through Christ our Lord. Amen.
John the Baptist came, the gospel passage says here, "as a witness to speak for the light".
St. John, the gospel-writer, is making use of one of the most common metaphors in the Bible: the metaphor of light and darkness, or light versus darkness, to be more precise. To know God, to come under God's rule and embrace God's values and purposes, is to come into the light. To reject God, to remain under the control of self-seeking goals and motives, is to live in a kind of spiritual darkness. The contrast between darkness and light is the contrast between sin and salvation.
The authors of the books of the Bible looked around at the world they lived in and they saw all kinds of exploitation and cruelty: military conquest, slavery, political repression. It was common for people to be treated as objects in all sorts of ways and to have their humanity denied. The authors of the Bible described that as the darkness that surrounds us. At the same time they also looked into the depths of the human soul and they could see all the warped, violent, grasping attitudes which give rise to division and misery. They saw the darkness within us as well.
But the authors of the Bible also had their experience of God to go on, and their experience of God told them that sin and darkness don't necessarily have the last word. The readings this Sunday, in keeping with the underlying theme of Advent, strike a strong note of hope: God brings salvation. Contact with God brings us out of darkness into the light.
When we're genuinely touched by "the spirit of the Lord" as Isaiah says in today's first reading, our characters are transformed. All the forms of lovelessness which mark our personal relationships, all the forms of oppression which are built into our political and economic arrangements, come under the influence of God's holiness and justice instead. And so Isaiah proclaims God's salvation as the rule of integrity, liberty, healing, happiness in people's lives now, and not - as we often tend to see it - as the state of being in heaven after we've died.
Last Sunday I suggested that although John the Baptist's way of life was exceptional, he was someone who put certain commitments into practice (repentance, solitude, simplicity in his way of life) which all followers of Christ should observe in a less severe way. This Sunday the gospel reading highlights another aspect of John's vocation which the Church community needs to imitate - his vocation as "a witness to speak for the light".
Today, just as much as in the days of Isaiah or in the days of John, the darkness swirls around us, and sometimes it takes a particular form of prophetic insight and witness to identify it and resist it. As always, the darkness impinges on us at various levels: not only personal but social and political too.
In our own society, for example, behind all the images and propaganda of wealth and increasing prosperity, Britain is a deeply divided community.
You would never guess from watching television adverts - or television news for that matter - that many people in our country struggle in circumstances of material hardship, with all the added emotional stresses which that imposes: insecurity, depression, breakdown of relationships. Even for those who are doing well, life is often rushed and pressured, but empty of real meaning or inspiration.
On another level, in the days of Isaiah and later in the time of John the Baptist, kings and emperors and political authorities ruled through fear and violence. State power was brutal and abusive - and unaccountable. Ordinary people were often victims of gross injustice, without any form or redress.
Two thousand years and more after that time we now seem to be witnessing a gradual return to these conditions - not in the one-party states or military dictatorships throughout the world but in countries like our own, which have longstanding traditions of protecting the freedoms and civil rights of ordinary citizens.
Human Rights organisations like Amnesty International, which used to be concerned almost solely with what was going on in Turkish or South American prisons, have had to turn their attention to the violations of international law committed by western governments, armies, and secret services. Now, apparently, when it suits the purposes of the powerful, kidnapping isn't really kidnapping, prisoners aren't really prisoners, and torture isn't really torture. The news media nonchalantly discuss the pros and cons of unlimited detention without charge and the need for brutal methods of interrogation, and help to create an atmosphere where these practices become normal and acceptable.
So in all sorts of ways the contrast between the light and the darkness is as stark now - maybe more so - than it was at the time the books of the Bible were being written. And the challenge facing us as believers in God is the same now as it always was: to be "witnesses to speak for the light".
We're always being told that the Christian religion is in steep decline in a country like ours, but it's worth reflecting that even now, the numbers of people who consider themselves practicing members of one or other of the churches, add up to a total far larger than any of the political parties or individual pressure groups.
I believe myself that, regardless of what anyone else or what any other groups are doing, circumstances are calling us as the Christian community as a whole to speak out in whatever way we can out in favour of basic principles of human dignity and human rights, to confront all the dishonest propaganda that's being thrown at us, and to disseminate the truth instead.
Prayer, openness to God, commitment to solidarity with each other, sensitivity to prophetic priorities - all the things St. Paul recommends in the second reading today, in fact - will lead us to find the right strategies. We might also think about clearing away some of the trivial and irrelevant activities that seem to absorb so much of our time and energy as church members.
The important thing is that the word of God contained in our scriptures, which we read and reflect on every week during the Sunday Mass, always has a specific message for us in terms of the context we live in at the time we hear it. I would suggest that this Advent the courageous and solitary figure of John the Baptist is challenging us to think specifically about what our own prophetic commitments might be and how we might fulfil our obligation to act as "witnesses to speak for the light".