Advent 02, Year A-2010
- The daybreak from on high will visit us to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow (Lk. 1:78-79—NAB)
St. John the Baptist sounds harsh. He not only tells people to repent. He also rebukes in the strongest of terms those deemed more religious than everybody else, calling them “brood of vipers” and prophesying destructive judgment against them .
Striking to be as harsh as John’s preaching, however, if not harsher, is the way he lives. He preaches in the wilderness where he is cut off from the comforts of town and cities. He is dressed simply—poorly, in the eyes of society—and lives barely on what the wilderness provides.
Yet all Judea and the whole region around the Jordan, undeterred by the harshness in and about John, come to him. There surely is no lack of either the merely curious or of spies representing the threatened establishment. But it looks like seriousness about repentance and being ready for the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven abounds; the people submit to baptism and acknowledge their sins.
Are the people, then, feeling so desperate that they are willing to grab onto anything—including, say, a harsh and piercing barbwire—that will prevent them from falling into something like a deep ravine that a fallen will find impossible to scale and get out of? Have they given up on their leaders so that, rejecting the official and magisterial presumption that the age of prophecy came to an end with the prophet Malachi, they now see John as a prophet who points to the inauguration in the wilderness of a new exodus (Hos. 2:14-15; Is. 4:3). John’s lifestyle, after all, is reminiscent of the prophet Elijah, whose return in the end time Malachi explicitly prophesied (Mal. 4:5-6). Doesn’t John offer the hope that the leadership of the day has dismally failed to represent?
People are losing hope during these dark times of economic recession, high unemployment rate, widening poverty, increasing polarization between right and left and political gridlock. But a John the Baptist, I am afraid, is hard to find.
There is no lack certainly of those who would offer hope. But they will rather get out of the wilderness and not be in the middle of nowhere. To peddle hope, that is to say, to give it in exchange for dollar contributions, they jet from city to city elegantly dressed and stay in hotels highly rated for luxury and the most comfortable accommodations. They are especially good at stoking anger and fear as they portray the leaders they oppose to be wholly to blame. Their tongues are sharper than John’s as they call their foes names, but they are not harsh with their listeners.
Peddlers of hope say mostly what their listeners want to hear. They do not challenge their audience to repentance, to a change of heart or a personal conversion that will contribute to the civil discourse, harmony and unity that the apostle Paul prays for in today’s first reading. Peddlers of hope accept only the invitations of people who think like them and agree with them. They do not welcome those different from them and, much less, those who voice dissent. For them, there is no way that the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, that the leopard can lie down with the kid, the calf and the young lion can browse together and be guided by a child, that the cow and bear can be neighbors with their young resting together, that the lion can eat hay like the ox, that the baby can play by the cobra’s den, or that the child can lay his hand on the adder’s lair. Their firm belief is that being able to inflict harm and ruin on one’s enemies is the only guarantee of peace.
They exert every effort, therefore, to prove themselves the mightiest and they brag they can beat anybody. Considering themselves the greatest, they expect others to carry their shoes around for them. They think they have the power to save themselves. Hence, they have no need for a savior. Arrogantly convinced that they are always going to be as tall and lofty as the cedars of Lebanon and the oaks of Bashan (Is. 2:13) and that salvation, survival, is guaranteed by the heredity of natural selection to the strongest and the fittest , they have never pictured themselves being reduced to a mere stump.
But complacent and self-righteous arrogance will be brought low (Is. 2:17). It will be made to see that from a stump will sprout a shoot and from its roots a bud shall blossom, that the root of Jesse saves and gives life by perishing and dying. Set up as a sacrament of rising through dying, it is sought by the powerless, be they circumcised or Gentiles, but really the only ones who are graced to recognize its meaning and efficacy because they are repentant and see their need for a savior, the true hope of those who have every reason to despair. His crucifixion and his hard sayings prove him authentic. Like his precursor, his harshness unexpectedly attracts rather than deters. His harshness only goes to show he has the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and strength, of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
-  Worse than beng called “viper” is being called “brood of vipers.” Cf. in this regard http://www.biblegateway.com/resources/commentaries/IVP-NT/Matt/Warnings-Wilderness-Prophet (accessed December 4, 2010).