2nd Sunday in Advent (A)
Looking Beyond the Turkey
Picture: cc *clairity*
Sisters and brothers, as you know, Thanksgiving came and went a little more than a week ago. How were your celebrations? Was the dinner a success? And what is it that makes a Thanksgiving dinner successful anyway? Naturally, the food is a big part of it. Ideally, all the traditional items should be served: the yams and mashed potatoes, the cranberry sauce and the gravy. And, of course, in the center of it all, there should be a generously stuffed, deliciously cooked, and delicately carved turkey. Every year, much effort and care goes into the preparation of these items. But isn’t it also true that far more important than the food that is served at the dinner table are the people seated around it?
We probably wouldn’t consider our dinner a success if, for example, the guests were fighting among themselves over where to sit, or if they were quarreling and exchanging hurtful insults, or if they were angry and not speaking with one another. In such a situation, even if the turkey was cooked just right, the dinner wouldn’t be a success, because more than just the food, Thanksgiving also involves a particular spirit. It has to do with gratitude and hospitality. In a truly successful Thanksgiving dinner, the guests should be feeling grateful for their blessings, especially the blessing that each person is for the others. And this gratitude should move each guest to be willing to act also as a good host. Each one should be willing to make space for the others, space at the dinner table, of course, but also space in their hearts. If we are unable to do this -- to be grateful and to make space for others -- then a crucial part of Thanksgiving is lacking. And, however much time we spent in the kitchen, our preparations remain incomplete and unfruitful. We need to look forward to the next year for another opportunity to prepare a more successful dinner. And, hopefully, this time round, our preparations will go beyond the turkey.
Something similar might be said about our Advent preparations for the Lord’s coming. In our first reading today, the coming of the Messiah is likened to the growth of a new tree from the roots of Jesse’s family. Jesse, as you know, was the father of King David. And we are told that this new tree will be fruitful beyond belief. When he comes, the Messiah will bring justice and faithfulness. Like a good host at a successful Thanksgiving dinner, he will make space at his table for the poor. And his justice will lead to a profound peace. Natural enemies will live in harmony with each other. The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb. All creatures will learn to make space for one another, even to the extent of changing their eating habits and modifying their instincts for survival. The usually meat-devouring lion will learn to eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. But neither of them will get bitten. And the reason why all this is possible -- why no harm is done on God’s holy mountain, why every living creature is willing and able to make space for the others -- is because a new spirit will be moving over the land, just as the water covers the sea. This is the same Spirit that rests upon the Messiah himself. This is the divine Spirit who will fill the earth with the knowledge of the Lord.
But in order to properly receive the Messiah and his Spirit we require preparation. And it is to this same preparation that John the Baptist is calling the people in the gospel. John is the voice crying out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Although many people respond to his call and are baptized in the Jordan, John makes it clear that fruitful preparation involves more than simply going through the motions of having oneself immersed in a river. When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to be baptized, John warns them that they will only be sufficiently prepared to receive the Lord if they accompany the immersion of their bodies with a transformation of their hearts. In addition, they also have to produce good fruit as evidence of their repentance. Just as a successful Thanksgiving dinner requires much more than a well-cooked turkey, the Pharisees and Sadducees are being told that they have to look beyond the external ritual of water-baptism to the Spirit that should motivate it. Otherwise, in contrast to the fruitful tree in the first reading -- the one growing out from the roots of Jesse’s family -- their baptism will remain barren. And when the Messiah comes, he will lay an ax to their roots. They will be chopped down.
But how are they to repent? What kinds of good works should they perform? To answer this question, it may be helpful for us to recall who the Pharisees and Sadducees were. Elsewhere in the scriptures, we are told that they were deadly enemies of each other. They engaged in violent arguments over whether or not there is a resurrection from the dead. Also, the Pharisees’ strict interpretation of the Jewish Law led them to neglect and even to victimize the sick and the poor. It is understandable then that John the Baptist should call them a brood of vipers. Their stubborn clinging to their own prejudices gave them the tendency to bite people, as some snakes might do. In contrast to the cobras and the adders of the first reading -- the ones who left children unharmed even when they put their hands into their holes -- the Pharisees and Sadducees were unwilling to revise or set aside their own biases in order to make space for others.
If all this is true, then perhaps what the Pharisees and Sadducees need to do is the same thing that Paul is asking the Roman Christians to do in the second reading: May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus. Welcome one another, says Paul, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God. In other words, learn to be hospitable to others -- both Jews and Gentiles alike. Learn to look beyond the turkey of your own prejudices and immerse yourselves in the Spirit of the Lord.
And perhaps this advice is appropriate not just for the Pharisees and Sadducees, but also for us. Some say that American society is becoming ever more polarized. Politicians, for example, often seem more concerned with towing the party line than with passing laws for the sake of the common good. Within our own Church, we often find it difficult to speak to one another across the lines we draw between conservatives and liberals. In our families and local communities too, we may sometimes find ourselves so focused on our own comfort that we neglect the needs of others. Even if we may be willing to gather around a table, we are reluctant to make space for one another.
Sisters and brothers, on this second Sunday of Advent, as we continue to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord, how are we being invited to look beyond the turkey today?