This Sunday’s gospel shows our reluctance to leave the Christmas season behind. It tells of the third of the ‘manisfestations’ of Jesus associated with the Christmas season, the others being the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord.
They key to understanding the place of today’s gospel in our liturgy is the statement that ‘He let his glory be seen.’ The Gospel of John contains seven major signs by which the true identity of Jesus, his glory, is made known. The transformation of water into wine tells us that Jesus brings a new time, a time of richness and fulfillment. An enormous amount of wine is provided. Although the ‘hour’ of Jesus, the hour of his death and resurrection, has not yet come, this sign is a pointer towards the ‘glory’ of Jesus.
The role of the mother of Jesus, who is addressed by Jesus as ‘Woman’, is significant. As in the stories of Jesus’ birth, so here in John, she collaborates with God’s ways in a humble and self-giving manner. She is the woman of the new covenant, as Eve was the woman of the old.
Luke offers us a vision of the baptism of Jesus that differs in several ways from that of Mark. Luke paints a picture of people wondering about the messiah. He depicts a Jesus who, the last to be baptised by John, is praying when the Holy Spirit descends on him in bodily form like a dove. Then the heavenly voice speaks. After he is anointed Messiah, Jesus’ public ministry, his life as God’s faithful son confronting the darkness in the world, his life as God’s faithful servant confronting the reality of suffering in the world, begins. Note that not all of John’s disciples followed Jesus. What about us? Do we forget the link Luke draws between the Spirit and prayer in today’s gospel? Do we identify Jesus as God’s Son? Are we ready to welcome Jesus into our hearts at the start of this New Year? Are we ready to accept him as Lord of the year ahead and walk with him in his ways of prayer and service?
The story of the magi carries with it an extraordinary richness. In it the evangelist teaches us about the mission of the Son of God. Jesus is ‘made manifest’ (epiphany = manifestation) as Messiah not only for his own people, but for those who come ‘from the east’, for all the peoples of the earth. At the same time this is the Messiah heralded by the prophets. The Scriptures are fulfilled.
This Messiah is born into danger, as the cruel tyrant, known to history as ‘Herod the Great’, is the first to threaten his life. The gift of myrrh alludes to the death he is to suffer. The presentation of gifts from the peoples of the world completes the Christmas scene. The magi represent the nations, but also the age-old quest among the peoples of the earth for true wisdom. This wisdom is found in Christ.
Apart from the stories about Simeon and Anna and their impact on Mary and Joseph, today’s gospel focusses attention on the growth of the Christ-child to maturity and wisdom at the heart of his family. As a fully human child Jesus, like all of us, had to grow physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. He also grew in wisdom (the Greek word used by Luke includes insight, skill and intelligence). That is how he was able to bring benefit to others and glory to God. And the best way to grow like that is as a cherished person in a loving family given every opportunity to grow and develop. That is how we understand the achievement of Jesus who reveals the wholeness proper to each stage of human development. Look at your family with appreciation today and pray for all children to be nurtured and cherished, surrounded by peace, love, tenderness and care. Then pray blessings on your own children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, and all the other members of your own family and those of your neighbours and friends.
This year, rather than repeating one of the two stories of the Annunciation (which are read in years A and B) we meditate on the Visitation. The focus is on Mary. Notice how her greeting sets everything in motion. Notice how she is called blessed three times in this short passage. That is why Christians call her the Blessed Virgin. The reason is her total cooperation with the will of God in the birth of his Divine Son. Luke makes it clear to us that Mary has been raised up by God to perform an essential task in the history of salvation. And so today we stand once again at the threshold of our salvation story. We stand with Mary, open with her to God’s plan. Let us thank God for the gift of Mary, the blessed one who opens the way. Let us give thanks for the Coming King who comes to us through her, his hands full of compassion and mercy. Like John in his mother’s womb let us, too, leap for joy. Let the Spirit transform us and fill us with new life.
Once again our attention is drawn to John the Baptist. The gospel passage we read today is divided into two sections, both of them full of good news. The first gives us a taste of John’s preaching to ordinary people: tax-collectors, soldiers and the like. We are given a heart-warming message of non-violence, honesty, truth, sharing, justice, kindness, mercy, contentment, compassion and generosity. The second gives us a taste of John’s messianic preaching. John tells the people that one mightier than he was coming whose sandals he was not fit to tie. The symbolism is one of humble service. John baptises with water but the Messiah will baptise with Spirit and fire, ready to set God’s saving harvest in motion. As Christmas approaches we are invited to reflect on the future that awaits us and how we will live it. Are we ready to let a compassionate Jesus winnow our lives and burn our dead chaff? Are we ready to let him draw us ever more fully into new life? Are we open to Christ’s transfiguring mercy? Are we ready to bring the light of joy to the world? Are we ready to produce fruit worthy of repentance? Are we ready to live an ethics of contentment and generosity as the Baptist urges all of us to do! God really wants us. God really loves us. God really looks at us with eyes full of mercy. But every genuine turning to God challenges us to expand our hearts. Turning to God is made real by serving others.
Every Advent, on the second and third Sundays, we focus our attention on John the Baptist, the prophet of God’s mercy. For Luke, the Baptist brings to an end the story of the Old Testament prophets and in so doing prepares the way for Jesus. The Prophets had insisted that God would come again. That is why John cries out in the words of Isaiah 40:3: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. For every Christian Jesus represents what Israel was waiting for with expectant hearts. We should not be surprised, then, that for Luke, what Jesus does and says has universal implications: his reach is cosmic. Are we ready to let him touch all peoples and the whole of creation through the ethical and spiritual quality of our own daily lives? Will I open my life to Jesus’s compassion? Will I walk with and help the weak, the destitute, the sick and the hopeless? Am I open to being an advent person in real terms? Have I learnt with Martin Luther King Jr not to mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities while people suffer? A radical Advent life is one that understands that doing justice for the poor is proper worship of God. Am I ready to light my second purple candle, bright sign of my preparation for the Lord’s coming? Will I make room in my life for the-God-who-comes this week? Will I serve God’s interests or my own? What do I conceal behind the mask of piety?
In Luke’s account of the apocalypse we are invited to contemplate the images of cosmic disruption the gospels associate with the Parousia, the second coming of Christ. We are also invited to reflect on the implications of dark times for the Church and the human family: division, the nations in dismay, people perplexed. More to the point we are invited to greet what is happening courageously. These events are not bad news, but good. That is why we are invited to be ready, standing erect, our heads held high. For the fullness of redemption is at hand. What a tragedy if we were asleep, distracted, on that great day because of our carousing and drunkenness, our minds and hearts trapped in the anxieties of life. The call is to be awake, on the watch, alert, vigilant, ready to take our place in the bright presence of the Son of Man, to be signs in our own lives of the triumph of love over darkness. Some people say, “The time is near” when it is not. We always need the grace and light of resilient hope because there are always moments of disappointment and loss. Advent invites us to look to the light. And so we light our first advent candle.
Is our God crazy or cosmic? That is the large and exciting question that challenges us on this last Sunday of the liturgical year as we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. It is the celebration of the climax, not only of this year of grace but also of the end, the omega point of the mystery toward which we orient our lives. Behind Christ is the God who reveals himself in Christ, the ‘I AM’ who is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.
Death is coming for us, whether we will confront it on our own personal eschaton or in the cosmic apocalyptic drama as described in the Gospel of Mark. Even if “the need” does not occur in our lifetime, and even if another group of end-time prophets falsely calculate Jesus’s return and offer precise dates that do not come to pass, we will still come to our end. How are we preparing for it?