Homily to Mass for Second Sunday of Advent, Year B

07 Dec 2014


The Bishops of Australia have called for a Day of Solidarity with the oppressed and martyred Christians of the Middle East today. We ask the faithful to join us in praying for peace and security for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Syria, Iraq and throughout the Middle East at present.

Mosul – the Biblical city of ‘Nineveh’ – has boasted a vibrant Christian community since the second century AD and Mass every Sunday for nearly two millennia; today there will be no Mass. Nearby Qaraqosh was the largest Christian town in northern Iraq, with 60,000 Christian residents: now there is practically none. The so-called ‘Islamic State’ movement are driving out all those who differ from them religiously or else beheading or crucifying them. Then they loot the houses and businesses of the Christians, and burn the ancient churches, monasteries and libraries.

All across the Middle East, we now see governments shaky or in disarray, armies and police in flight, essential infrastructure destroyed, hospitals and refugee camps stretched to breaking point, billions of dollars of assets looted or destroyed, and streets full of corpses. It is ‘religious cleansing’ or genocide.

Christians in the Middle East are all too used to this. Prior to the military invasion of 2003, 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq; two-thirds had already left even before the latest turmoil. Lebanon was an 84% Christian country when it was established in 1926; now the proportion is less than half that and still declining. In Turkey Christians have dwindled over the same period from a third of the population to a tiny minority of 0.15 per cent. In Egypt, too, the sizeable Christian population is declining rapidly.

Today and in the days to come please pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in the Middle East.

Homily for Second Sunday of Advent, Year B
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 7 December 2014

The Mandæans are a Gnostic sect mostly living in Iraq, though Peter Owen-Jones’ BBC series, Around the World in 80 Faiths, identified some living in Sydney. Like the Christians and Yazidis in Iraq, the Mandæans are being hunted to extinction by the ‘I.S.’ extremists. For them to flee to safety is to abandon the banks of the Tigris and Euhprates where they’ve conducted their baptismal rites for millennia.

The Mandæans revere the earliest patriarchs such as Adam, Abel, Seth, Enoch, Noah and Shem – but they reject Abraham, Moses and the prophets, all the way through to Jesus who they think perverted true religion and the Holy Spirit who they think is evil. Yet one figure they revere in common with us Christians is St John the Baptist.
From the earliest times the Baptist has loomed large, indeed larger than life, in the imagination of Christians, Mandæans, Muslims, Mormons and even Freemasons. Amongst the many locations claiming to possess his severed head are the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the Church of St Sylvester in Rome and the Residenz Museum in Münich. At least three places claim to have the saint’s right hand, with which he baptized Jesus: the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the Serbian Orthodox Monastery of Cetinje, and the Romanian Church of the Forerunner on Mount Athos in Greece. The Baptist is patron of the Hospitaller Order of Malta, the St John’s Ambulance, and our parish in Bonnyrigg.

St John also featured in the works of great Christian artists such as Caravaggio and Raphael. One of the greatest works is by the sixteenth century mystic painter, Matthais Grünewald. Best known for his deeply moving crucifixion scenes, combining horror and mystical elevation, his most famous is the Isenheim Altarpiece, a Crucifixion with Our Lady and John the Baptist. John stands by the Crucified and points to him with an elongated finger. All that it meant for the Baptist to be who he was is in that finger, pointing away from himself and towards the Christ.
Today’s readings also depict John the Baptist as a ‘pointer’. He is the voice crying in the wilderness calling Israel to prepare for the Lord’s coming (Isa 40:1-11). The opening verses of St Mark’s Gospel, which we heard today and will now read more or less continuously through the coming liturgical year, introduce us to Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the Promised One, the Powerful One, the One who pours out the Spirit (Mk 1:1-8). Mark’s Gospel does not begin with the story of the Annunciation to St Joseph in a dream as Matthew’s does or the Annunciation to Mary by an angel as Luke’s does: instead we get Annunciation to Israel by John the Baptist. John is no angel and perhaps more nightmare than dream He was someone few of us would invite to a dinner party: a sort of Palestinian hippie, dressed in camel skin, with long hair, and nibbling honey-coated cicadas. He was a rather terrifying figure, preaching repentance, conversion, preparation for the Lord. He is the herald of Advent, the pointer towards Christ.

We, the Church, are also called to be pointing fingers, drawing attention away from ourselves and towards Christ. St John proclaimed himself unworthy even to unstrap the sandals pof this “someone greater” who was coming. He diminished himself in significance so that Christ’ significance might increase. John was a truly humble prophet.

If we are to undertake our Advent-pointing task, we too must clothe ourselves, if not in the same animal furs, at least in the same humility. In our Christian understanding humility consists in being precisely the person you are before God, in self-estimation according to truth. It has two opposites: the first and more obvious is pride, an inordinate assessment or desire for one’s own excellence. Those who are proud think they are better than they actually are, or others worse, or that they are capable of more by themselves than they really are. This is something many of us know in ourselves by temperament or success. It is made all the worse by the contemporary emphasis on self-importance in pop psychology, spirituality, politics and economics.

But there is another vice opposed to humility and that is pusillanimity, small-mindedness, under-estimating you own gifts and potential under grace. On the Christian understanding true humility has nothing to do with constant self-accusation, cringing inferiority feelings, masochistic self-reduction, real or pretended self-loathing. Rather, Gospel humility is about knowing ourselves for who and what we truly are, and in relation to God and others. It means esteeming ourselves and God’s gifts to us, and extending ourselves appropriately. It entails having, if you like, a true sense of proportion. John the Baptist did not avoid the title of prophet or refuse to allow a huge crowd of disciples to follow him. Only the proud or pusillanimous would do this. Nor is humility hand-wringing, emasculated, faint-hearted. No-one thought the Baptist a wilting flower.

My secretary was blessed with a second child this week. If you talk to new parents like him, you’ll often find in them a wonderful sense of awe and humble gratitude. They know that their infant, so beautiful, noble, the pinnacle of creation, is really none of their making. The babe is much more God’s than their own. That rich vein of humility so extravagantly given to parents can be mined by any of us who dares to face stupendous fact of creation, or of our own creation, or that of re-creation occasioned by Christ and calling forth repentance in us who point to Him.

Pride denies the relationship between the saved and the Saviour; ultimately it denies our creatureliness. Humility, on other hand, looks first to God and confesses dependence, subjection, our need for Christ’s coming as the Babe of Bethlehem. We cannot be engulfed by the awesome power of God’s omnipotence and generosity, and at the same time coddle the illusion of proud self-sufficiency. Yet for many of us, the way we learn humility, learn about our creatureliness, is through humiliation – in sickness, dependency, failure. If nothing else, the catalogue of our own failures should give us plenty of grounds for humility – so often we are wavering, weak, timid – as does the list of God’s powers and perfections.

Humility, then, is about truth, strength and awe. It is not false, unrealistic or mundane. It allows us to enter into the spirit of Advent; neither to trust too much in our own strength nor despair of the gift of God’s; to be fingers pointing confidently to the coming of Christ who is our one and best hope. By acknowledging our own need we make room for God. We make a manger in our own hearts in which to lay the baby Jesus at Christmas.