December 7, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent

Mother Rebecca's Chapter Talk for the Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-5;9-11 and Mk 1:1-8  
 In the first reading John the Baptist is being described by the prophet Isaiah 600 years before he is born!  This prophecy shows John’s importance, however, it is not very detailed.  He is only described as “a voice” – “a voice crying out in the desert”.   This reminds me of when I was growing up, my sister nicknamed me ‘the mouth’.  Perhaps she was not prophesying that I would have something important to say in my latter years, but more so that as a child I talked loudly and a lot! (Note that I said ‘as a child”!)  However, we can’t underestimate John’s importance.  In Mark’s gospel the very first verses are describing John again.  He is “a voice crying out in the desert:  prepare the way of the Lord”.  The voice was important because of the word he spoke:  Jesus Christ…the Word made flesh.  He was a voice that didn’t speak just any words (like “the mouth”!), but he spoke The Word of God.
            Last week we saw how Mary was the prefect model for how we are to wait.  Today John the Baptist can be a model of how we are to prepare.   His message is a good place to start:  “make straight…a path for our God.”  Isaiah explains that to make a path straight we need to fill in the valleys and make low the mountains, so that the rugged land can become a plain.  It is then that even the humblest of vehicles can make it along the road to God.   
            Many of our Early Fathers used the analogy of “laying low mountains” as removing pride and “filling in valleys” as removing false humility or an unhealthy self-depreciation.  To be on the mountain top we feel we see greater and farther than others or we think we have greater power when we look down from above.  Ironically this arrogance shows our ignorance.  We are not striving to become number one but to become one – one with all people in the Mystical Body of Christ.   But to be in the valley of self-rejection or a poor self-image will also leave us blind.  We cannot see much from a sinkhole!
            It was a healthy humility that made John open to receive God’s Word and Spirit.  John did not care about appearances - his only desire and passion was to preach to others the need to prepare for the Lord’s coming.   Repent and straighten out your lives.  He was detached from “being a name”.  He could have described himself as son of Zechariah of the priestly order of Abijah and his mother as from the descendants of Aaron.  He laid that mountain low, not letting his ego get in the way. 
            John in humility tells people that he is not worthy to even untie the sandal of the One who is to come.  Yet he filled in that valley of low self-worth because he knew that God loved him tremendously and tenderly.  God was with him.   People were flocking out to the desert to hear John and be baptized.  Yet he remained transparent…always pointing to Christ and away from himself.  When John saw Jesus he told his own disciples “there is the Lamb of God”…and John’s disciples left him to follow Jesus.  John laid low the mountain of popularity, or needing to be needed, and was detached from outcomes.  When John said “I must decrease and Christ increase” he was filling in another valley.  It was not self-rejection; rather he was emptying himself of himself (!) so that he could be totally filled with God.  We see that this growth in humility was a process – and the process itself keeps us humble!  Little by little we decrease, but that is of no great virtue unless we increase in Christ…opening ourselves to the Spirit that guides us on the highway to God…here we learn that we are not the center of even our own lives. 
            These valleys and mountains have been described many ways:  pride verses false humility; an ambitious ego verses a lazy follower; the ups and downs of the spiritual life verses staying steady and even keel. What is important is that we come to understand what the valleys and mountains are in our own life.  This is John’s message to us:  Prepare.  Make the road to God level. 
            St Bernard captures this concept in a series of sermons from the Song of Songs (35-38).  He says we must have knowledge of self and knowledge of God, or more precisely, knowledge of our own goodness yet knowing it comes from someone greater than our self, from God.  He says, “Humility springs up within you from knowledge of self and love{springs up within you} from the knowledge of God, so on the contrary, pride comes from a lack of self-knowledge and despair from a lack of knowledge of God.” (Sermon 37:6)   St Bernard continues, “You cannot love what you do not know, nor possess what you do not love”.  (Sermon 37:1)   What are we doing in our own life to gain this knowledge of self?   Are we truly growing in humility?  And, what are we doing in our own life to gain this knowledge of God?…that knowledge that brings us to Love tremendously and tenderly!   For without the knowledge of self we are ignorant…and our talents will not be used.   And without the knowledge of God we are arrogant…and are talents will be abused.
            What John is teaching us today is that when waiting we need to be facing the right direction or what we are waiting for can slip right behind our backs…unaware of The Presence…even when so close!  Mary teaches us how to wait; John how to look in the right direction.
            So today on Retreat Sunday we can take some time to ask:  Do my actions bring me closer to God?  Do I bring people around me closer to God?    We believe that through our monastic life we can bring others to God who we will never even see…by prayer and fidelity to our way of life.  We bring God closer to us by identifying the obstacles in our path to God…to have the humility to lower the mountains of arrogance, as well as the knowledge that leads to love, to fill in the valleys of ignorance.  This is the message we receive from John:  Prepare a highway for God.

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