'Console my people, console them' says your God. 'Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended, that her sin is atoned for, that she has received from the hand of the Lord double punishment for all her crimes.'
A voice cries, 'Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert. Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low. Let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges a valley; then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all mankind shall see it; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. 'Go up on a high mountain, joyful messenger to Zion. Shout with a loud voice, joyful messenger to Jerusalem. Shout without fear, say to the towns of Judah, 'Here is your God.'
Here is the Lord coming with power, his arm subduing all things to him. The prize of his victory is with him, his trophies all go before him. 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.
A reading from the second letter of Saint Peter (3:8-14)
There is one thing, my friends, that you must never forget: that with the Lord, 'a day' can mean a thousand years, and a thousand years is like a day. The Lord is not being slow to carry out his promises, as anybody else might be called slow; but he is being patient with you all, wanting nobody to be lost and everybody to be brought to change his ways. The Day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then with a roar the sky will vanish, the elements will catch fire and fall apart, the earth and all that it contains will be burnt up.
Since everything is coming to an end like this, you should be living holy and saintly lives while you wait and long for the Day of God to come, when the sky will dissolve in flames and the elements melt in the heat. What we are waiting for is what he promised: the new heavens and new earth, the place where righteousness will be at home. So then, my friends, while you are waiting, do your best to live lives without spot or stain so that he will find you at peace.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark (1:1-8)
The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah: Look, I am going to send my messenger before you; he will prepare your way. A voice cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight. And so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him, and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan they confessed their sins. John wore a garment of camel-skin, and he lived on locusts and wild honey. In the course of his preaching he said, 'Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptised you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.'
Sunday Reflection 2nd Sunday of Advent (10.12.17)
Comfort in Uncertainty
St Mark opens his Gospel with the coming of John the Baptiser. The opening verses (1:1-8) form our Gospel for this 2nd Sunday of Advent. Mark does not record Jesus' infancy years. John (the Baptiser) came out of the desert clad in a garment of camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey. Clearly, there was nothing conventional about him.
At that time, life for the Jews, under a punishingly unrelenting Roman regime, was hard and filled with uncertainty. The world of that era, and this, is a world of inescapable uncertainty. Life's unpredictability is not conquered by diaries, schedules or even the latest in medical advancement all of which can be nullified in a heartbeat or the lack of one.
It is not surprising that the Jews, at the time of John the Baptiser, were drawn to him. He would have provided a colourful distraction from the pain of their repetitive daily subjugation. But whatever drew the Jews to John in the first place, they stayed. They were captivated by what he had to say more than by his appearance. His preaching resonated with their deepest desire, an end to uncertainty with the arrival of the promised Messiah.
In John's call to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, the Jews heard the fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy. "As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God's salvation.'" (Luke 3: 3-6)
Over the decades many would-be messianic figures had appeared. Initially the Jews paid some attention but then lost interest not finding the truth they were searching for. John the Baptiser was different. His cry 'in the wilderness' resonated with a comfort they longed for in the barrenness of their lives, which was more than an absence of food and security. They knew they had fractured their covenant with God. John's words were filled with a compelling conviction and sincerity.
John's chosen setting of the Judean wilderness would have been remarkable for one thing, its silence! The phrase "In the desert" is capable of several interpretations. If we focus on the element of silence, a desert is a place of profound silence - apart from the times of sandstorms. In a true desert there are no trees or bushes to noisily challenge the wind, no leaves to rustle, no animals to create sounds. In such a desert, it is possible for a person to be recollected.
Could this explain how those who travelled out of the villages and towns to hear John the Baptiser were, indeed, able to hear him without distraction? Freed from competitive noise, people would not have had to struggle to hear John. The silence enabled them to focus their attention without distraction. And, in that silence, they were able to discern and respond to the truth John brought them?
Recently, Pope Francis remarked with sadness, that when celebrating Mass, in St. Peter's Basilica or out in the enormous piazza or at any large gathering, he, inviting the congregation to "Lift up your hearts", sees so many raised mobiles! He lamented the number of people in the congregation who were more intent on taking photos than in participating in the spiritual aspect of the Mass.
The oppressed Jews of Jesus' era were well experienced in daily, even hourly, uncertainty. Yet, despite this, they retained an inner ability to identify a genuine call of God when it came. For this to be so, they must have held on to a sense of faith and prayer in which they found comfort in the midst of the direness of their uncertainties.
Despite the unusual appearance of this desert-dwelling man, they heard, in his words, God's call to them to seek forgiveness for their sins. As Mark tells us: "People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him (John) and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins."
Our first Reading, this Advent Sunday, is from the prophet Isaiah (40:1-5,9-11). He was God's prophet eight centuries before the birth of Jesus and his cousin, John. Isaiah announced God's comfort for his afflicted people: "In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!" … "Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."
By contrast with John 'in the wilderness', Jesus preached in towns and villages amidst noise and bustle as well as the vocal opposition of Scribes and Pharisees who feared the loss of their political power. The first trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin would have been a raucous setting. The second public trial before Pilate would have been even noisier and the people subject to violent intimidation. Could this explain how, in just five days, the crowds who had welcomed Jesus with 'Hosannas' as he approached Jerusalem (Palm Sunday - John 12:12-19) had been persuaded to cry 'Crucify him' (Good Friday - John 19:6). The Truth had been overwhelmed, temporarily, by the noise of falsehood, politics and self-interest.
Most of us lack the opportunity to withdraw to a monastery or a retreat centre. So, it becomes the more important to recall that an inner stillness is possible even in the midst of a bustling, noisy city, a railway carriage, a bus or a bus stop, or even a plane. Someone, in a railway station café, once asked me what I was reading on my tablet. I replied, "I'm praying the Psalms". "The what", they replied. The conversation continued until the questioner's train was due!
Sometimes, those who live alone may not appreciate as much as they might, their opportunity for a prayer-filled stillness in which to celebrate God's presence with them in that place! When they do, their prayer reaches out, beyond the confines of their location, to embrace all whom they choose to include whether they live nearby or far, far away.
Advent calls us to prepare to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of our Redeemer, Jesus the Christ. Most people find themselves trapped in a cycle of feverish, enforced conviviality, at an exorbitant cost, that manages to obscure the heart of the Christian festival, the birth of God-made-Man for our Salvation. If we make time, each day, to be still, to meditate perhaps using a Reading from the Mass of the day we, as Isaiah prophesied, will be comforted.
God's comfort - that inner peace - is not easily found in this world. To find it, we, like the people of the Judean countryside and the inhabitants of Jerusalem more than two thousand years ago, need time to withdraw from the noise and razzmatazz. We would need to create a still-centre within ourselves. Jesus, in Matthew's Gospel (6:5-6) tells us, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you pray go into your inner room, shut your door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
With stillness and wordless prayer in our daily life, even for short periods, our soul can breathe. Like those 'Wise Visitors' of Epiphany fame we would be progressing towards our eternal home with the one gift that would bring joy to our King and Lord on the anniversary of his birth among us - a prayerful, loving stillness.
Pastoral letter: Sunday 10 December 2017
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The season of Advent is very short this year - it is only three weeks and one day long - and this means that Christmas will be upon us before we know it. Inevitably our preparations for the great feast will gain a heightened sense of urgency as the days pass. This sense of urgency was also experienced in the time of John the Baptist.
Today's Gospel shows just how excited the people were at the news that John the Baptist was preaching in the wilderness. Something great was about to happen. 'All of Judea and all of the people of Jerusalem' flocked to hear the preaching of John, who was announcing the coming of the Lord and calling them to repentance. The excitement among those who heard the Baptist must have been at a very high pitch, and that level of enthusiasm was also to be found later among the first Christians as we heard in today's second reading from St Peter's second letter. He exhorts us to always be ready for the coming of the Lord at the end of time, when his promises will be fulfilled and a new heaven and new earth will be ushered in. This will be the time when there will be a new reign of justice on the earth. Although we continue to state these truths in the Creed, have we lost the enthusiasm that should come with a belief that a new age will come to us?
In our time, Catholics and non-Catholics alike have welcomed Pope Francis because he is exciting and inclusive in his ministry. Like St Peter he impresses on us the necessity to live fully the Christian life now and not to put it off until later. By word and gesture Pope Francis encourages us to reach outwards to those who are in physical and spiritual need.
Throughout the Archdiocese there are many examples of individuals, schools and parishes responding to the needs of others at home and in the developing world. As I go around the Archdiocese the good works that are carried out in Christ's name never fail to lift my spirits and give me new heart. This orientation is at the heart of Christianity and therefore at the centre of our Christian life. This is Pope Francis's vision for the Church. It is a vision of a Church that is not hampered by buildings or regulations but one where these structures are put at the service of the Gospel; and it is a vision that we should make our own.
In his letter 'The Joy of the Gospel', Pope Francis wrote: 'I dream of a "missionary option", that is a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church's customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today's world rather than for her self-preservation.'
Our diocesan Advent Prayer which you received last week and which will be used at all Masses says, 'Help us to become the Church you are calling us to be.'
Pope Francis invites everyone to be part of this adventure: 'To those who feel far from God and the Church, to all those who are fearful or indifferent, I would like to say this: the Lord, with great respect and love, is also calling you to be a part of his people! The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.'
Pope Francis's dream can become reality, but it requires us to change and to capture something of the enthusiasm that is found in our young people. They often ask the question, 'What would Jesus do?' And it is a good question. When we hear the gospels we see Jesus going to the poor, the sick and the blind. But he also spends time in prayer, attends the synagogue and keeps the Jewish feasts, even going up to Jerusalem though he knows it will mean suffering and death for him. So should it be with us. Prayer is important because when we truly engage with God it overflows as action. Our Advent Prayer asks that this may be our experience, 'Send us out to share what we have received ...' As we prepare for the coming of the Lord then a good way to do this is to take stock of our Christian life and ask ourselves if our spiritual life is centred only on ourselves or does it drive us outwards to bring the light of the Gospel to others by feeding the hungry, working for peace or contributing to charitable work. This process of prayer and reflection resulting in action is something that Pope Francis alluded to when he wrote to the Church at the closing of the Year of Mercy: 'The Year of Mercy has set us on the path of charity, which we are called to travel daily with fidelity and joy. It is the road of mercy, on which we meet so many of our brothers and sisters who reach out for someone to take their hand and become a companion on the way ... By its very nature, mercy becomes visible and tangible in specific acts ...'
The road of mercy and the path of charity are other names for the journey that we follow as 'pilgrim people'. Our journey as an Archdiocese over the next three years is a path that we will follow together towards the Archdiocesan synod in 2020; after all, the word 'synod' means just that - being together on a common road.
Sometimes it is difficult for me to capture the enthusiasm that I referred to earlier. The Church has gone through much change and this has left us longing for a new vision. The beauty of the Advent season is that it reminds us that our future and the future of the Church are in God's hands and that he unfailingly comes to us in unexpected ways that are ever new. Who could have predicted that in our time we were to be blessed by having Francis as our Pope, leading the Church to deeper and more contemporary ways of living the Gospel? As our eyes and hearts are opened to the coming of the Lord this Advent, let us pray that we may see more clearly how we can serve him in the Archdiocese of Liverpool.
May I wish you and your families a blessed Advent and a peaceful Christmas,