Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
3rd Sunday of Advent (C)
December 13, 2009
“Nothing is more simple than greatness. Indeed, to be simple is to be great.”
Last week, we alluded to what I call the “gang of seven” – bigwigs and powerful people all, who became even greater in contraposition to lowly John the Baptist, “the son of Zechariah in the desert.” I also spoke about the need for us to face our very own power blocks, the modern-day equivalent of the “gang of seven,” who may also stand in the way of our being totally sold out to the call of John the Baptist – to make all paths straight and level in preparation for the coming of the Lord.
Today, we see the tables being turned in favor of this lowly man who dressed in “funny clothes,” (camel’s hair) and ate “funny food,” (locusts and wild honey), out of whose life – and death – someone named Herod had selfishly “gotten a rise,” for himself, insecure as he most likely was, about his fast waning hold on power.
Ironically, it was the scheming and vengeful Herodias, who, together with the misguided Salome, were the ones who literally, though subtly, held power over the backboneless Herod.
Irony reigns supreme in today’s unfolding dramatic plot involving “crowds,” “tax collectors,” “soldiers,” and John the Baptist. The man who dressed funny, and who ate funny, was no buffoon after all. Three times he was approached and asked a most important question: “What should we do?” The “crowds” have always been represented in the gospels as an unruly and unthinking – if, fickle – group. Now, they adulate Jesus and lay down their cloaks in honor, as Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph. Now, they shout out loud, “Crucify him!” Now, they sit contentedly munching on free sandwiches courtesy of Jesus’ instant miraculous fast-food joint! Now, they stare in stony silence watching the bloodied man make his way in pain towards greater pain – and death - towards Golgotha!
These crowds, in a sudden flash of inspiration and goodness, now ask him: “What should we do?” The crowds were hanging on the lips of him who did not even make grandiose claims for himself, but demurely stated: “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.”
The second group was that of the exclusive, “old boys’ network,” made up of the much hated “tax collectors.” These were people who definitely knew what they were doing – something, in fact, that the whole world knew then – that they were masters and brazen experts at extorting money from the poor. They, too, approached John with what appears to have been an honest question: “What should we do?”
The third group, no less hated and despised, was presumably the merry bunch of those who were in cahoots with the tax collectors, those who paved the way for extortion to take place, those whose swords and clubs were just as hated as the tax collectors’ money bags; those who definitely did their own extortion “on the side,” discretely or not-so-discretely. They asked John the same question: “What should we do?”
Fast forward the story to the year of our Lord, 2009. Pan the lights and allow them to focus on the bit players on the stage that is the world – and life - in general. Shakespeare was right. “All the world’s a stage,” and we are all bit players in the drama of human life. Let the klieg lights fall on our own personal countenances. And it won’t take long for us to see ourselves in the very same shoes and costumes of the “crowds,” the “soldiers,” and the “tax collectors.” “That man is you!” may well be what the sinful David in all of us ought to hear from our own “prophetic imagination.”
We are the thoughtless crowds, who follow the bandwagon of popular opinion and contemporary culture – what Rolheiser calls the “culture of unbridled restlessness,” that is at the bottom of our inability to be a little more spiritual, a tad more Godly in our thoughts, actions and desires. Consumerism, materialism, and what Kavanaugh calls a “commodity culture” are what lead us, the modern-day “crowds” to be so callously indifferent to the presence and the voice of God in the world.
We, too, are the modern-day tax collectors, who extort so much from the gifts of God’s creation, the Divine gift of time, of health, of talents, and of opportunities, that we mostly take advantage of. A life of comfort and ease has blinded many of us to the reality that 25 % of the world’s population use up 75% of the world’s resources, while 75% of the world’s population have to make do with the remaining 25% of the world’s resources. Time, the only commodity that everyone has so much, and at the same time so little of, is mostly used up for our personal concerns and priorities. We have time for work, for golf, for TV, for shopping, for movies and a plethora of leisurely activities, but hardly enough time left to attend to God and our own spiritual welfare.
But then, we too, are the soldiers who may tend to lord it over others in many and various ways. We can even be wolves in sheep’s clothing, when we take advantage of others’ ignorance, goodness, or simplicity – as when the moneyed people in our times act as veritable “kingmakers,” who are willing to bankroll the candidacy of people who know nothing of leadership, let alone, civil service for the common good, whose only passport to power is popularity and good looks and a celluloid image that appears as bigger than life, to the uneducated masses. We act like the same soldiers when we bully our way towards our self-centered goals by hook or by crook. Military men who have lost professionalism by their pledging allegiance not to the flag but to these “powers behind the throne,” are indeed not any different from the hated soldiers who approached John the Baptist. Legislators who become nothing more, nothing less than paid hacks who tailor the laws to favor the rich and the already powerful are no different either. And the ordinary voter, the ordinary Tom, Dick and Harry (Juan de la Cruz for the Philippines) who sell their votes (and their souls) to manipulative politicians are not faring any better. Pastors of souls – ordained ministers like us – who worry more about their future and their ever fattening wallets than about the call to new evangelization and ministry to the “least, the last, the lowest and the lost,” would do well to reflect on the same question, “What should we do?”
The recent events at Maguindanao in the Philippines are a testimony to power gone berserk, wealth gone wayward, and position abused to unimaginable heights! Where else can you see police and military men sworn to serve the needs of the people, ending up being stool pigeons and foot soldiers of goons and warlords bearing the name of “honorable governors and mayors”?
There is reason for all of us to pause today, the third Sunday of Advent. And no one ought to feel exempted from the searing power of the Good News of salvation. The main theme of today’s liturgy, it must be remembered, is joy… advent joy! Take note, that advent joy refers not to emotional happiness but to a religious sentiment. Emotional happiness is shallow and cheap and ultimately not long-lasting. This is the sort of happiness that people who earn money by extortion find in this earth and in this life, temporarily at best, with dire consequences, at worst. Emotional happiness is what people who always pull a fast one over others invariably feel every time they succeed. Emotional happiness is what earthly and material possessions and money can offer us.
This is not what Zephaniah and Isaiah the prophets speak of. “Cry out with joy and gladness: for among you is the great and holy one of Israel.” This is not what St. Paul refers to: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”
What ought we to do then? John the Baptist gives us a few signposts along the way that we should traverse on our own: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none and whoever who has food should do likewise… Stop collecting more than what is prescribed… Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”
There is a word to summarize all these – a word exemplified by no less than the protagonist of today’s drama, John the Baptist … simplicity. Simplicity is what John the Baptist stood for…ordinariness and unassuming, but ironically, powerful presence before the women and men of his times, a presence that exuded power and authority because of his genuineness, sincerity and truthfulness. John the Baptist was just what he was…no more, no less, and nothing else … a voice crying out in the wilderness. And since “ordinariness is palpable holiness,” (Wicks) sinners like crowds, tax collectors and soldiers were attracted.
St. John the Baptist, tell us what to do and show us the way as we journey down the road of life!