Sunday, 10 December 2017

Advent Week 2 Sunday (Year B)

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 84; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

It can be difficult to explain, especially to the sceptical questioner, why the Christian faith continues to ‘hold’ us. One reason why it is difficult to talk about it is because it is a matter of the human heart, a question of where we are being drawn to give our hearts. There is a natural modesty about revealing our hearts to too many people and certainly not in public places. There is something very sad about those television programmes in which people feel they must speak about the intimacies of their lives to huge audiences. There is an appropriate, and virtuous, modesty about any ‘affair of the heart’. In today's first reading God instructs the prophet Isaiah to ‘speak to the heart of Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 40:2).

A further complication in talking about our sense of call to follow Christ is because it has to do, not only with the human heart, but also with that heart in its relationship with God. God himself is always, and increasingly, mysterious to us. It should not be surprising, then, if we find it difficult to be articulate about His ways with us, about the involvement with Him into which God has led us, about what God has done with our hearts.

Some of the first Christian teachers, because their language was Greek, noticed a connection between the term for ‘call’, kaleo, and the term for ‘beauty’, kallos. Although it does not show up in English, it is a helpful connection in trying to understand the sense of being called that believers experience. It is like being drawn, or attracted, to someone, or to something. We know that the attraction of what is beautiful is undeniable and irresistible. This is true not only of people we find beautiful, but also of art (pictures we go to look at again and again), music (songs we listen to over and over again), landscapes (parts of the country we never tire of visiting), and so on.

One of these early Christian writers says that God is rightly called beauty because ‘beauty bids all things to itself and gathers everything into itself’ (Pseudo-Dionysius, Divine Names IV.7). It is because there is something beautiful in the figure and teaching of Christ that people are drawn to try to follow him and that they keep going in spite of many difficulties. The bidding or call of beauty is not intrusive, aggressive or violent. It is not an imposition forcing us in a direction in which we would prefer not to go. But it is undeniable and irresistible, no less powerful for working in the way it does.

We may find little of beauty in the figure and preaching of John the Baptist. His is a strange lifestyle. He points to our sins and to our need for repentance. He points to the ways in which we fall short of the goodness and beauty of God’s holiness. But for Christians he is just the forerunner, come to herald the arrival of the Christ. John is not the light but the one who points us towards the light. ‘I baptise you with water’, he says, ‘but (the one following me) will baptise you with the Holy Spirit’ (Mark 1:8).

The light, of course, is Jesus. He is the one to whom the Baptist bears witness. Jesus is ‘the consolation of Jerusalem’ and the definitive revelation of the glory of God. He is the one about whom we are called (drawn) to shout: ‘here is our God (Isaiah 40:9)’. We believe Jesus to be the beauty of God made flesh. Simply in virtue of who he is, and what he means, he bids us come to him, to follow him, and to share his ways. He ‘calls’ us to become like him and – the deepest of the mysteries we teach – to share His divine life, becoming partakers in His divine nature.

The real beauty of Advent and Christmas is not the pretty decorations we add to the outside of our lives but the radical call implied in the birth of this child, who is the Eternal Son of the Heavenly Father. How are we to relate to this ‘light of the world’? What are we to make of this ‘sender of the Spirit’? What is our response to the challenge he gives us? Of course we continue to await the fulfilment of his promises in that ‘place where righteousness will be at home’, as today's second reading puts it (2 Peter 3:13). But in the meantime we are all called to give our lives to building his kingdom of justice and glory, where mercy and faithfulness meet, and where justice and peace embrace. This is the vision, or call, of beauty that supports our faith and our hope.

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