“Rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near!” Phil:4:4-7.
Rejoice, the Lord is near! And yet, for both John the Baptist and Saint Paul these were the most troubling time in their lives. Paul was in prison awaiting his fate. Years before, John, as we hear in today’s gospel from Luke 3, and in the very next paragraph, we find that John is taken into custody by King Herod.
John the Baptist is a central figure in the New Testament. Consequently, he is so prominent in the gospels, remembered in our Catholic liturgical calendar with feast days, sacraments as well as in Western culture in painting, sculpture, music and opera.
The American writer and humorist, Garrison Keillor reminds us,
“John the Baptist didn’t go to college. He had no seminary training, and did not receive academic credit for his ‘life-style.’ Rather he lived in the desert. He wore camel hair and fed on locusts and wild honey. And he was very convincing, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!'”
John was at the intersection of the God of the desert and the God of the temple. Not that it was an either/or, like Jesus, John put privilege aside for service, and spiritual comfort for those in need. And like Jesus, John preached about personal reform, conversion or transformation. In the gospel, people ask, “What did you go out to see? A reed blowing in the wind?” How was it that the desert was a place to find God?
For us Americans, our recent history reminds us again and again the difference when dealing with peoples of the Middle East. Our time in Iraq and Afghanistan is a painful reminder.
Years ago, when I first saw the David Lean film, “Lawrence of Arabia,” I was spellbound by this feature length movie, with the vast desert landscapes. I have watched the film countless times, and I have it almost memorized, and I have forced my students to see it.
If only our American leadership had carefully understood Lawrence’s message, that when dealing with the Middle East, these peoples are not nation-states, rather desert tribes.
The film was based on T.E. Lawrence’s “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” and provides an insight into the creed and stock of the desert people, who Lawrence encountered just prior to World War I, at the beginning of the twentieth century.
A stock of people he writes, “after the man in goatskin (John the Baptist), and his Galilean cousin (Jesus). As clear then, at the time of his writing and even more today, Lawrence tells this truth,
“They were a people of primary colors, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern day crown of thorns…. The common base of all Semitic creeds…was the ever-present idea of world-worthlessness. Their profound reaction from matter led them to preach barrenness, renunciation and poverty. They sought the desert not because they found God there, but because… in solitude they heard more certainly the living word they brought with them.”
With the clarity of the night, the desert could be an extraordinarily cold place — the brightness of the stars, followed by the scorching heat of the day. For John the Baptist, the desert provided an arid space with no temple and no corruption and no distractions. In the desert, God could be reached.
John the Baptist set the stage for Jesus, preaching the “good news” of the coming age to a very diverse crowd who had come into the desert for discernment and baptism, and the new-life of renewal in the spirit.
The crowd kept asking a very pertinent question, “What shall we do?”The Baptist had very pointed and even practical responses. Should you have two-cloaks, give one away. To tax-collectors, he told them to stop collecting more than what is prescribed, and don’t take bribes. For the soldiers, they should not falsely accuse anyone and be satisfied with your wages.
John’s message had an added poignancy, namely that “the Lord is near!” His central prescription was that each person was to straighten out their lives, because Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with a winnowing fan will blow out the dust, debris and desert sand that covers us.
“Rejoice! Your kindness shall be known to all. The Lord is near!
Pope Francis in his “Joy of the Gospel” reminds us,
“Whenever we encounter another person in love, we learn something new about God.”
On Tuesday, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Pope Francis opened the Holy Door of Saint Peter’s Basilica to begin the Holy Year of Mercy. He told those present,
“Put mercy before judgement… to enter through the Holy Door means to rediscover the mercy of the Father, who welcomes all and goes out to meet everyone personally.”
Like John the Baptist, Pope Francis had very practical recommendations,
“The celebration of this feast involves two things: Freely accepting God and his merciful grace in our lives, (and) becoming artisans of mercy through an authentic evangelic path.”
“Rejoice in the Lord always, I shall say again: Rejoice! (Phil 4:4)
For these last days of Advent, he’s a short poem.
“Sabbaths” was written in 1983, by the great American poet Wendell Berry.
The dark around us, come, let us meet here together, members of one another, here in our holy room.
Here on our little floor, here in the daylit sky, rejoicing mind and eye, rejoining known and knower.
Light, leaf, foot, hand, and wing, such order as we know, one household, high and low, and all the earth shall sing.
(North Point Books, 1987)