For the four Sundays of Advent, Bondings 2.0 is featuring lectionary Scriptural reflections by LGBTQ Catholics writing on the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality in church contexts. This series is entitled ” ‘Fear Not to Cry Out’ : Challenging White Supremacy and Anti-LGBT Prejudices to Prepare the Way for Our God.” The liturgical readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11; Psalm 85:9-14;1 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8. You can read the texts by clicking here.
Today’s reflection is from Craig A. Ford, Jr., a doctoral candidate in Theological Ethics at Boston College.
We probably never think of ourselves as Jesus’ heroes. The association seems more natural in reverse: Jesus is our teacher, and we are Jesus’s disciples. Jesus is the hero, and we are—when we’re acting at our best—his eager sidekicks. Our readings for this Sunday challenge thinking about our relation to Jesus in this way. This Sunday, we’re asked to think about John the Baptist. And before Jesus was the Jesus of Nazareth whom we know and love—the one who exorcises demons, the one who heals people, the one who walks on water—Jesus was a person like you and me. Indeed, Jesus was a disciple; Jesus was an eager sidekick. And Jesus’s hero was John.
It’s easy to pass over John the Baptist. In the artistic tradition, John is pretty unremarkable: his hair is disheveled; he wears simple clothes; he frequently appears malnourished; and he’s always pointing to Jesus—that is, away from himself. But before this—before John became the John whom we know and love—John had a message. It was a message that Jesus adopted so strongly that Jesus became John’s disciple. Jesus asked for—and received—John’s baptism (Matt. 3:3-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22, cf. John 1:29-34). John was Jesus’s hero.
What attracted Jesus to John? Was it John’s message? Elsewhere in Scripture we can hear it anew, “Bear fruit that befits repentance,” John counsels, “and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our Father’” (Matt. 3:8-9). John’s message here is that there is no room for complacency when we know both that we live in a broken world and that part of that world’s brokenness has come as a result of our own actions. Like John’s followers ask in Scriptures, we also ask John, “What then shall we do?” (Luke 3:10). John’s answers convict us in their sheer demanding simplicity: “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:11). “Collect no more than is appointed you,” and “Rob no one by violence or false accusation” are his other teachings (Luke 3:13, 14). Perhaps when we hear Jesus later characterize the simplicity of his own message—“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:30)—we are hearing echoes of one of Jesus’s most formative teachers.
What message would attract Jesus in our current day? The first and second readings give us hints. The message that Jesus regards as heroic in our day are the words spoken by persons comforting those who have been overburdened: “Comfort, give comfort to my people…Like a shepherd [God] feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs” (Isaiah 40:1, 11). They are the words spoken by people who prophesy a diverse human family united in virtue of its singular creator, “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together…Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40:5, 9). They are the words of those who call for us to persevere in doing good: “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved.” Peter consoles us, “that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years. The Lord does not delay his promise as some regard ‘delay’…But according to his promise, we await a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:8, 13).
Comfort the oppressed. Preserve unity. Persevere in doing good. Perhaps we hear these exhortations so often that their demanding simplicity is lost on us. This should scare us. Perhaps more often than we are comfortable admitting, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we are not like those whom Jesus admonishes in his famous parable of the sower. Yet, if we are honest, we are often like those who initially receive God’s word with joy, but later drive the power of God’s word from our hearts.
In what directions, then, are we called to grow this Advent, a season that, properly speaking, is a penitential one? Like many Catholics, our minds may gravitate towards confession. But, as queer and LGBTIA-identified Catholics, we also know that this can be a tricky invitation to accept. Too often we find that our lives and our loves are denounced both formally and informally in diocesan newspapers and during Catholic homilies. In these instances, we are wise to avoid the confessionals as well.
But where we can find Catholic communities that affirm our lives and our loves, confession becomes a place of great healing and recommitment. “Go, the priest will be good,” Pope Francis encourages us. “And Jesus (will be) there, and Jesus is better than the priests – Jesus receives you. He will receive you with so much love! Be courageous, and go to confession.”
But we limit the sacrament of reconciliation’s power if we see it merely as a transaction between ourselves and God via a priest. Reconciliation is meant to be contagious; this is the Christian gift that is meant to keep on giving. For those of us living in the United States, this Advent season challenges us especially to take on the work of racial reconciliation, especially in a time like our own, where despite our geographic proximity, it appears that black and white Americans are living on different continents, polarized by the election and the administration of Donald Trump.
John the Baptist Pointing Toward JesusLike all work, ours in this regard begins with accepting God’s grace to help us recognize without equivocation, amendment, or qualification that, indeed, black lives matter. From here, we let the Holy Spirit guide us in Her wisdom. Rather than acting in complicit complacency at family gatherings this holiday season, do we instead prudently challenge remarks and sentiments that reflect the pervasiveness of structural racism? Rather than believing that this important work belongs to “the experts”—whoever they happen to be—do we, instead, take responsibility, and affirm our agency in a way similar to that shown by Jesus’s mother, Mary? “Here am I; the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38).
John ends his lesson to us today: “One mightier than I is coming after me….I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8). With remarkable symmetry once again to his teacher John, Jesus passes the torch to us when he breathes on us, as he did on the disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). We must be the heroes once again, pointing to Christ in word and in action. This Advent, let us make reconciliation—a hero’s act, if there ever was one—a reality.
–Craig Ford, December 10, 2017