Mt  3.1-12                       Is 11.1-10                 Rom 15.4-9

Back to 1970, and I recall the musical Godspell taking off and hitting the big time, along with Jesus Christ, Superstar,  both based on the life and message of Jesus, albeit with considerable poetic licence, particularly the latter, where we had Pilate singing along, cynically  asking Jesus to walk across his swimming pool!  The more recent musical on The Book of Mormon was a rather different satirical, and most irreverent, take on the strange teachings which came from that source. The two about Jesus were far more respectful, and not at all pulling the rug from under his teachings. Their popularity was such that both Jesus musicals were also later produced as film versions. And then in 1989, there was Jesus of Montreal hitting the screens, also a poignant reflection on the message of Jesus, with an updated Passion Play, which didn’t please the higher ups – the Catholic clerical religious authorities of Montreal, the equivalents of the Pharisees and Saducees who feature in today’s Gospel, under attack by John the Baptist, well before Jesus has a go!

Whatever you might think, the first two musicals certainly raised the profile of Christianity, in the secular world, at a time when the Swinging Sixties had had a big impact on changing perceptions and attitudes in the western world at least, with the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, then ending with the moon landing in July 1969, but, at the same time, the Vietnam War was ongoing until 1975, ending with the Fall of Saigon.  They sure were interesting and changing times.

But I digress!  What prompted these thoughts was the opening scene of Godspell, where, in the darkness of the theatre, a horn loudly sounds, and the focus comes from the back, as John the Baptist makes his entry to the stage, through the surprised audience. No-one can question his existence, as Josephus, the Roman historian of the day, makes mention of him, as having his own following, prior to Jesus arriving on the public scene.

It’s clear enough John was a tough and forceful figure, determined to make his presence felt, with a challenging message, not just for the authorities, but for all prepared to listen to his proclamation of the need for repentance and a change of heart.  While he prefigures Jesus, he has much the same message, with the call to turn back to God and godly ways of behaving, and to repent of sin and evil in one’s life.  Given human nature, this message endures for you and me too, throughout our lives, as we move through the Church’s feasts and seasons.  The reminder is always there, that we will never ever reach a state of perfection in living the Christian life, so the call to persevere and reflect is always there.

There’s a certain urgency about John’s message, as if things were going to end sooner than later, as with many Christians in the early Church. The urgency comes not so much from endings than with the requirement to respond here and now to live well day by day, rather than procrastinating, and putting things off because of other priorities, as we can see it.

Isaiah continues on with ecological imagery from last week, where the swords and spears were to be hammered into ploughs and sickles, and now it’s the crazy impracticality of the carnivorous wolf living with the gentle lamb, the panther with the kid, the calf and the lion, the cow and the bear making friends, and all turning vegetarian in the process!!  Likewise it might be ill-advised for anyone, let alone a child, to play near venomous cobras and vipers!!  We can’t take it literally!  It might be lovely imagery and imagination, but hardly realistic. He is perhaps providing these thoughts to suggest the difficulties humans have with working together, for peace and inclusion of all, even though it should not be impossible, for those of faith.

And all this following on from the original presentation of the 7 gifts of the Spirit we all learned for Confirmation: “Wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety and, of course, fear of the Lord.” (The last we might translate into awe or reverence, in preference to fear!).  Who remembers?

In fact, it’s not a bad summation of living a good and godly life, it might be said, with the call for integrity, faithfulness and equity, meaning a fair go for all.  Admittedly, there’s the warning of a harsh judgment for those who don’t respond to improving their behaviour and living out their faith.  The hopeful vision presented is of justice and peace for all.

For Brendan Byrne SJ, “John’s baptism with water is a preparatory rite of conversion, readying human hearts for the entrance of the message about God’s love… that Jesus will impart.”

The Advent reflection from The Tablet, by Sister Teresa White FCJ,  provides food for thought also, in relation to the pressures and rush of life we can all feel weighing in on us at this time of the year: “Restless and troubles we long for peace; in the darkness and confusion that surrounds us, we long for light; fearful and anxious, we long for courage; weighed down by sorrow, we long for joy; faced with the bleakness of life in today’s world – poverty, injustice, wars, pandemics – we beg for comfort. For our lack of compassion for people in need, for our failure to acknowledge the damage we are doing to the earth, we seek mercy. If moments of quietness are woven through the weeks of Advent, we will hear the voice of God, speaking gently, leading us out of the darkness, and, when Christmas comes, we will see that the Kingdom of God is in our midst.”

So, perhaps a bit of quiet time out, here and there, might be the way to go as we prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts and minds, responding to John the Baptist’s urgent call, which will continue next week.

john hannon                                                                         4th  December  2022


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