2 Sunday of Advent, Year B
Is 40:1-5, 9-11; 2Pt 3:8-14; Mk 1:1-8
Introduction: This is a homily/Scripture reflection in a book, titled: ‘Every Week God Speaks We Respond’, Cycle A, intended to be published in the future by Reverend John Tran Binh Trong.
It was published in Vietnamese in the US 2007 and republished in Viet Nam 2010. To keep the author’s writing style, this homily has not been edited and may not be by a hired hand. However, if readers would like to point out mistake(s) in spelling and grammar and/or to suggest English phrases and expressions, it would be greatly appreciated by the author, whose English is not his mother tongue and who did not live in the US until his adulthood. Passive sentences are used intentionally in this context as to avoid using the first personal pronoun ‘I’ when applicable. That might be associated with any idea of egotism, in accord with the French saying, known as: ‘Le moi est haissable’ (The ego is detestable).
The Gospel of Saint Mark begins with the story of John the Baptist, the last prophet in the Old Testament. After a long period of silence when there had been no prophet, now God's people were able to hear the word of God again through John the Baptist. The mission of John was announced over 700 years before by the Prophet Isaiah that God’s people would be liberated. The Prophet Isaiah prophesized that people would hear a voice in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the wasteland a highway for the Lord (Is 40:3).
At that time, there were only camel tracks for traders between Babylon and Jerusalem. Therefore, the people were exhorted to widen the trails, because according to them, the messiah would come across the desert. Interpreting the preparation for the coming of the messiah in the spiritual sense, John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:4). Why preaching in the desert?
The Dead Sea scrolls found in the Qumran desert in 1947 and later excavations discovered trace of a Jewish community. Members of the community were priests or unmarried laypersons, living an ascetic life praying and contemplating daily and putting property in common according to vows. Possibly coming from this group, John the Baptist then appeared in the desert to preach.
According to the biblical notion, the desert was associated with the beginning and growth of Judaism. It was in the desert that the Israelites encountered God. They heard God's call to be his people and were prepared for their role of being chosen. The desert was their way of life for forty years on the way to the Promised Land. They realized that they could not have survived their journeys through the desert without the protection of Yahweh.
In the desert, they were tested, and when they betrayed God, the prophet Hosea told them that they would be led into the desert again so that God could speak to their heart (Hos 2:16). Thus, it was appropriate for them to hear God's word again through John the Baptist in the desert. In today's Gospel, John prepared for the way of the Lord by preaching the message of repentance. John's mission was challenging.
First, he had to prepare for his prophetic mission by going to the desert to fast and pray. Fasting is a way of repentance. Fasting is also a way of building up spiritual strength. Secondly, who was going to the desert to listen to his preaching, except grasshoppers and scorpions?
Yet the Gospel today tells us that people came from Jerusalem and the countryside to listen to him. The attraction of people not only from the countryside, but also from Jerusalem proved that John had some power. The people came to hear him because his preaching had charismatic power to change their lives. They came to hear him, not because they wanted to see a weird individual in his way of eating and clothing: Clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey (Mk 1:6). They responded to his preaching of repentance because they felt they were closer to God. Hearing a voice of an actor playing the role of John the Baptist in the movie of Jesus of Nazareth, the audience has the impression that his voice is like a roaring lion waiting to catch its prey.
The desert is an arid place, rarely with water and living creatures. In the desert, people feel powerless and vulnerable, because there is no room for compromise. They have to make a choice between God and self. John realized his mission was to call people to repentance and to be baptized. So for the people to enter the desert to listen to John's preaching means they wanted to accept a baptism of repentance in order to prepare themselves for the coming of the messiah. John realized his mission was to call upon people to repentance and baptism. People rushed in to hear John because they believed that he preached the word of God, not to compromise, not to please the audience, not to tickle their ears. Therefore, when receiving the baptism of repentance, people began to change their lives.
Another question arises here. Should we go out to the desert to listen to the message of repentance? It would be weird for somebody in our time to do that: to go to the desert to preach and to listen. To create a desert-like atmosphere, young people of the Eucharistic Youth Movement go to the desert or the woods for training sessions. Each training camp was named in accordance with a biblical notion such as fire camp, holy fire camp, camp Jerusalem, Camp Bethlehem, camp Nazareth so that attendants could feel God’s presence easier in the natural environment. To go to the woods or to the desert, it would be easy to be in danger such as being lost, attacked by wild animals or getting lost. Therefore, one would find it easy to cling to the One who holds one’s life.
For most of us, what we can do is to create a desert-like atmosphere in our soul where only God and self exists. To speak like that means we have to seek quiet time to be alone with God, to listen to the voice of God in the desert of soul. In the desert, people should find it easy to make decision concerning which direction to follow, because there are no trees to block their view.
In the same way, in the desert of soul, where there is no external things to distract us, we would find it easy to make decisions for our lives. That is the choice, which each one of us has to make in this season of Advent.
A prayer for seeking to find God in the desert of soul:
Lord, our God! You are present everywhere.
In the desert, forest and ocean, you are there
It was in the desert that the Israelites met you.
Grant me a solitary heart
lest it should be distracted by external surroundings
and overwhelmed by internal attachments.
Teach me to create a desert- like atmosphere in my soul:
solitary and calm so as to invite you in,
to stay with me. Amen.
John Tran Binh Trong