Fr Christopher Dillon OSB
This season of Advent in which we find ourselves has a prophetic character; and prophets are regularly anti-Establishment, insofar as they call the Establishment and its keepers to account for their ministry or the lack of it. During the past week, we have heard the prophet, Isaiah, excoriate the hypocrisy of the priests and those conducting the sacrificial ritual of the Temple worship, because it bears no relation to their everyday behaviour of corruption and greed.
Today, the same theme is continued under the aegis of the Baptist. When the representatives of the Jewish Establishment appear, in the persons of the Pharisees and Sadducees, John is quick to observe the discrepancy between their apparent readiness for penitential reform and their actual behaviour; “If you are repentant, produce the appropriate fruit, and do not presume to tell yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; that is, ‘We are members of the Chosen People’”.
We, here, might all say of ourselves, “We are Mass-going Catholics”. The Baptist responds, “So what?!” Our ploughing through the ritual of our prayers and services counts for nothing, unless our behaviour manifests the goodness, the holiness and the generosity of the Father.
But there is more, much more, to what the Baptist has to communicate to us; he has a profound sense of the unique transcendence of his divine cousin and of the relative littleness of us, mortal human beings. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals”, he says of himself; and of Jesus, “He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” What he meant by that, what he understood by that, is for the scholars to discuss; but it is clear that he appreciated the littleness of human achievement in the context of the grandeur of God and, by association, the insignificance of the Pharisee and Sadducee agenda. Incredible as it may sound to our ears, both Pharisee and Sadducee, whatever the difference in their theology, believed that the merits of Abraham before God were such as to guarantee the favour of God for every Jew, simply because he or she was a descendent of Abraham.
For all of us, here, today, the Baptist is calling us to take account of our real situation, to consider the meaning of our existence in the vastness of God’s creation. We, Christians, could be at risk of presuming too much on the merits of our Baptism; for our faith teaches us that God became human so that we humans might become God. “Not so fast!”, the Baptist interposes, “Show me the fruit of your Baptism”. Through the centuries, the history of the Church as the community of those who believe that Jesus has risen from the Dead, for all its sins and faults, has been uniquely characterised by its care of the poor and
the sick; just think how many religious orders have been founded for precisely that purpose, providing hands and feet to work God’s kindness among his people.
Working God’s kindness among his people, that is the meaning of our
existence; that is the fruit of our conversion, as we make our way through the maze of life, to realise the glorious goal for which God has created us, the goal for which God became a human being in Jesus of Nazareth. Only by this means, only by this work, does our attendance at Mass and our other religious practice have any value, any meaning. Advent is the time to consider these things.