Second Sunday of Advent – Fr. Pete Iorio
December 7, 2019 – 5:00 Mass
In our gospel today we have the very strange and perplexing character of John the Baptist. His roots are that he was born into an establishment family. His father Zachariah was a priest of the Jerusalem temple. He was to follow in the footsteps of this priestly class. But he did follow tradition. John has a unique role.
John is the end of the Old Testament and Jesus is the beginning of the New Testament. Until John, it was the law and the prophets. With Jesus began the preaching of the kingdom of God.
So for John, son of the priest Zechariah, to go out of Jerusalem 21 miles down to the Jordan River, it would kind of be as if I, a priest, would leave this church building and go down to the river and start conducting services. I wonder what you think about that.
John is an establishment figure doing very different antiestablishment things. John is not even dressing like a priest. He is wearing camel hair and a leather belt. He eats locusts and wild honey, not middle-class priestly food. This man is popular and when Jesus is appearing on the scene, John is the one that the crowds are following. Yet, John knows that it is not all about him. When Jesus appears, John moves out of the way in humility and lets Jesus be the one that he indicates the crowd should follow. He is a good leader who does not let popularity get to his head.
What strikes me in this passage is that even the religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees were making the journey out of the temple to see John. Why is that? The people of that time had a sense of urgency about the kingdom of heaven, believing it to indicate the beginning of the end of the world. So also the Pharisees and Sadducees: who showed up more with the intention of fleeing from the coming wrath than actually producing fruit of their repentance. More importantly, John was the one whom Isaiah foretold, and his preaching resonated with the people of Judea.
I found a very important part of the gospel today is that John the Baptist called out the religious leaders of the time, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, just as Jesus would do constantly during his three years of ministry. He uses harsh language calling them a brood of vipers. He did not believe that they were sincere about repenting but were fearful of the impending wrath of God. He said that there must be fruits to their conversion.
I am going to say something which you may not agree with and that is OK. Jesus showed us that self-criticism of our own religion is necessary.
The ability to think critically about ourselves is the first necessary step out of the dualistic mind. It teaches us an initial patience with ambiguity and mystery, while also teaching us rational honesty. The Jewish and Christian religions have the power to correct themselves from inside, and move beyond mere superstition, because of these kinds of sacred and self-critical texts. Jesus lived and taught as a prophet. In baptism, we are anointed in the roles of Jesus as priest, prophet and king. Jesus truly was a radical prophet, speaking with authority for God and he was put to death because he called for change, challenging the status quo of leaders who were threatened and afraid of losing power.
Self-criticism is quite rare in the history of religion, yet it is necessary to keep religion from its natural tendency toward arrogant self-assurance—and eventually idolatry. Self-criticism is also necessary for civil leaders for the same reasons.
Certainly, we are called to individual repentance and conversion. We had a very good turnout for the penance service last Thursday. But there is also a call for a collective repentance and conversion and a change.
Like in Israel at the time of Jesus, religious leaders were arrogant and self-serving and greedy, so in our own day we see in our Catholic Church a failure of religious leadership. I am not saying anything that is not true. I love our church and I am part of the leadership so I am not separating myself from self-criticism. Many have left our church because of the scandals that have happened. Sexual scandals, abuse of power, and financial greed. It is painful and scary to talk about. When we have faith in the light of Christ shining on the darkness of our sins, conversion and change will happen.
As I read scripture and look at the signs of the times, I believe it is very good that we have a pope named Francis, who was a church reformer of the 12th century. Pope Francis is with much difficulty challenging and criticizing the status quo. This type of prophetic leadership is very difficult and always resisted. But it really is after the heart and mind of Jesus.
Pope Francis is not afraid to talk about our problems, to criticize the hierarchy and call us to repentance. To lead the church to change is very scary because we like the status quo and cling to a certainty that seems to give us assurance that we are right. Faith is always letting go with trust that God is always with us even when we are not certain of some things and even when we are wrong. God is good all the time. God loves his people with an immense love and continues to birth His Christ in our world. God also invites us to be reborn and to not be afraid to exercise our role as prophet.