Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
"In the desert prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!"
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'" John the baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
John the Baptist could be the central figure in today’s homily. He prepared the minds of people in his circle to welcome the bringer of salvation. That is how God seems to work: sending the message of salvation and meaningful living to us through each other. St Paul once asked two vital questions, "How can people know about God if they have never heard? and how can they hear if nobody is sent to them?" So the vocation to proclaim or preach religious truth is vital, if God is to be known and loved.
Jesus found his first disciples among those who heard John the Baptist preach. It was John who showed them the value of self-control and of prayer, who urged them to listen to the inner voice of God, with a contrite and faithful heart. The high point of John’s short ministry was meeting with Jesus. Not only did he baptise Our Lord but he sent some of his own followers to join the Jesus movement. Through him, Andrew and his brother Peter, and Philip and Nathanael became apostles.
God still wants us to help help other people to know and love him. If we were more committed as Christians, maybe we could do more to influence others towards faith in God. Parents can introduce their children to God, with words about trust and prayer. But their words will only be effective if built on the example of their actual life. In all sorts of way, people are in position to influence others, for good or ill. This is clearly so for those who work in the communications media, press, radio and T.V. But ordinary people doing ordinary jobs can also influence the views and values of those they interact with. In light of today’s portrayal of John the Baptist, does our way of speaking and behaving help others to share our values, or do we confirm their suspicion that this world is a selfish and cynical place?
And what about promoting vocations to the priesthood or other ministry, or any form of service to the church of Christ? The future of our church as an organised, priest-served community handing on the prayer-life and values of Jesus is under serious question today. But if enough people open their hearts to God’s work, like John the Baptist and those first disciples, Andrew and Philip and Peter, then a way will be found to keep the world aware of the saving message of Christ. In the process, our bishops may need to be urged by many practicing Catholics to open up the priesthood to well motivated, devoted married people, as well as to the traditional but diminishing cadre of the voluntarily celibate.
The call of John the Baptist is challenging but, ultimately, it is a consoling word, because the Lord to whom John calls on us to turn our hearts is not one who is here to judge us. Rather, he is one who has come to heal and renew us. The voice crying in the wilderness is, ultimately, a voice of consolation. In the opening words of Isaiah in today’s first reading, ‘Console my people, console them. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem.’ At the end of that reading, Isaiah declares, ‘Here is the Lord coming with power.’ The word ‘power’ can have negative connotations for us. It can suggest some kind of overbearing presence or a determination to dominate. Yet the power of the Lord that Isaiah speaks about is of a different kind altogether. He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast, and leading to their rest the mother ewes who are soon to give birth. This is a very tender power; it is the power of a faithful and enduring love, a love that gathers and nurtures and gives rest. This is the God whom John the Baptist invites us to rediscover this Advent. It is this God who comes to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In the gospel, the Baptist refers to Jesus as ‘more powerful than I am.’ He is the more powerful one, in the sense that the first reading defines power. It is Jesus who gives full expression to God’s tender love that brings healing to the broken, strength to the weak and rest to the weary. It is this adult Jesus, now risen Lord, whose coming towards us and present to us we celebrate at Christmas. The Baptist calls us this Advent to prepare a way in our lives for the coming of this Lord, this Shepherd, in whom, as Responsorial Psalm says, mercy and faithfulness have met, justice and peace have embraced. This is the one we are called to meet this Advent, who can give meaning and depth to all our other encounters.