2nd Sunday of Advent A
Sunday 4th December 2022
The Gospel Paraphrased
There are many fine translations of the Gospels readily available. This paraphrase is not meant to replace them. Rather the intention here is to offer a more contemporary rendering so that you can imaginatively translate the Gospel in your own situation.
This Sunday's Gospel Paraphrased
It happened that John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the wilderness of Judea. He proclaimed, ‘Change your heart and mind, for the Kingdom of God is close.’ John was the man about whom Isaiah prophesied:
‘The voice of one pleading in the wilderness:
Make a way for the Lord, prepare his paths.’
John wore a garment made of camel hair, with a leather belt round his waist and lived on locusts and wild honey.
Then all the people from Jerusalem, from Judea and from all around the Jordan are came out to him. He baptised them in the Jordan, as they confessed their sins.
But when he saw some of the religious leaders coming to him, he attacked them saying, ‘Nest of snakes, who’s warning you to flee from the coming wrath? Come on, produce the fruit of repentance. Don’t you dare assert, even to yourselves, “Abraham is our father”, for I’m telling you, God can make children for Abraham out of these very stones. Look, the axe will soon cut down the tree, even deep into its root, if it doesn’t produce good fruit and what is cut down will be thrown on the fire.
‘Indeed, I do baptise you in water as a sign of your change of heart and mind, but there is someone coming after me who is far greater than me. Why, I’m not even fit to carry his sandals. He, he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire! The winnowing fan is in his hand and he will thoroughly cleanse the threshing-floor. He will gather the wheat into his silos but the chaff will be burnt in an eternal fire.’
The Psalms are the ancient prayers of the Jewish people, here paraphrased into contemporary language.
This Sunday's Psalm
Ps 71:1-2, 7-8,10-13
Give judgement to the king, O God,
and your justice to his son,
so he can give righteousness to your people,
and judge justly for the poor.
Righteousness will flourish in his days,
and an abundance of peace till the moon exists no more.
He will reign from sea to sea,
across the widest expanse of the lands.
For he will save the needy when they cry out,
the poor also and those without help.
He will be a refuge for the poor and needy.
He will give life to those in need.
His name shall endure forever,
till the sun exists no more.
All people shall be blessed in him.
All nations acclaim his name.
Words cannot contain our desire for God but they help direct our minds and hearts towards God's love and express our needs.
This Sunday's Prayer
Loving God, send me your Holy Spirit that I might have the understanding to see what in my mind and heart need transformation, the wisdom to change and the courage to persevere. I ask this in Jesus’ name confident that you will hear me.
The Commentaries Summarised
As a Church we are in a web of wisdom that comes to us both from tradition and contemporary writers. This section offers a summary of some commentaries on the Gospel. Also below is a list of the books and articles that have been consulted in compiling this Sunday's "Pray As You Can" and which could be used for further reading.
This Sunday's Commentary
While in the Gospel of Luke there is an extended introduction to the person of John the Baptist, here in Matthew’s Gospel, he appears dramatically, out of the blue, preparing the way of the Lord. The very manner in which he is introduced is significant – in his dress and food, the reader recognises him as a prophet, especially akin to Elijah who confronted Israel when it had fallen into apostasy.
Three times in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, a term for ‘repentance’ is used, playing a crucial role in this part of the Gospel. Indeed, John’s first sentence, ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,’ will be the first words used by Jesus when he begins his preaching ministry after his period of trial in the wilderness. Unfortunately, the word ‘repent’ in English has connotations of sinners turning away from a dissolute lifestyle to one of virtue. The Greek term is far more subtle and challenging, as indeed we shall see when John directs it to the Sadducees and Pharisees. The word ‘repent’ means ‘change of mind and heart’ with overtones of thinking carefully over one’s life and changing those areas that are sinful. Obviously this would include gross moral failure, but the way John attacks, yes attacks, the religious leaders that come to him, forces us to widen its use to include faulty religious attitudes. The Sadducees and the Pharisees belonged to two differing theological groups in Jesus’ time and could be said to represent two extremes, yet they had certain failures in common. Firstly, they are both are criticised for putting their faith in lineal descent from Abraham. Secondly, a religious life is only true when it produces fruit. In the prophetic tradition, this would mean mercy, justice, generosity to the poor etc. – not religious practices as such. Thirdly, the images of cutting down the tree and threshing wheat are apocalyptic images of the Last Times. There was a great deal of speculation of when and how this would take place in current theological discussion. John sees this as useless unless it gives a sense of urgency to reforming one’s behaviour in the present. Tribal allegiance, religious practices, theological discussion – they have their place in the life of faith – but they are not what religion is about. Rather it is the slow, subtle transformation of mind, heart and life into the ways of God.
Christian conversion is promoted by conversation. This section is a response to and a development on the knowledge gained from the commentary section.
This Sunday's Exposition
There is a phrase in this Sunday’s Gospel that gives us a crucial insight into repentance. The term is ‘appropriate fruit’. Repentance is more that feeling sorry or guilty about past actions, more than feeling sad about the mess our lives are in. It is a dynamic force producing change not only in mind and heart, but also in the actions of our lives. Sorrow, guilt and sadness are only feelings in initial stage of this process. Staying in them for too long may indeed vitiate the transformation that repentance is supposed to bring. Imagine a boy swinging a stone in a slingshot. He twirls it round and round to gain the momentum needed for the stone to fly away. At some stage he has to let go and stop twirling. Negative feelings about our poor behaviour are only useful if they give us the momentum to move away from destructive behaviour. So how is this done?
Repentance is a transformation of heart _and_ mind. After experiencing the bad feelings of guilt and sorrow, we need to get our minds into gear: think about what we have done and the ramifications our actions have had in our own and other people’s lives. This is not done to make ourselves feel worse but rather to gain understanding of just where our failure lies. Quite often what appears to be sin or failure is only an outcome from a deeper and more serious flaw. Seeing this we may be dismayed but, more likely, we may feel empowered. As we go deeper, we may discover the root cause to a variety of negative behaviours. Having made this discovery, we may not realise it but we have hit gold. Like most gold, it is extracted only with difficulty. We need guidance from God and from others, we need thought and determination to continue the process of change, we need humility and grace. A guiding force throughout this process is to imagine how we would or could behave when we are freed from this sinful tendency. The transformation of repentance results in the freedom to love, even in difficult circumstances. This is ‘appropriate fruit’ to which John refers.
Reflection is an essential element of our growth in Christ. As we reflect over what we have learnt and ponder it in our hearts, we come to recognise the presence of God in our lives.
This Sunday's Reflection
Repentance is a tricky business – it’s not that we don’t hear the call to repentance – the issue is: just what should we be repenting from? Our human tendency is to justify behaviours in which we have become set and to criticise behaviour we are unlikely to practice. So, the wowser attacks alcohol and the drunk justifies the drink. Or, as we see in the Gospel, the religious leaders are attacked by John for adhering to a cornerstone of their faith: they are descendants of Abraham! They must have thought John insane when he said this. It is like saying to a devout Catholic, ‘You put too much store on having a Pope and Tradition.’ When we look at John’s next two criticisms of these people, we get some sense of where their fault lay. Firstly, their faith had to produce fruit: actions showing that Abraham truly was their Father. Parroting a tenet of faith wasn’t enough: they had to do works of faith. Secondly, faith had to be lived, here, now. Working out the time of future judgment was a waste of time. These two criticisms give us some insight into how we can discern how we should repent in our own lives.
Repentance is a transformation of mind and heart. It begins with having a sense of what needs to be transformed. Looking into our own mind and heart is even more difficult than knowing what one looks like without the aid of a mirror. But we have our actions to show us. We need to take stock of what we actually do and ask: In whom or in what am I putting my faith when I act like this? This could feel difficult and elusive, like trying to catch the wind…except for our conscience. This is that still small voice that every now and then undermines our ready assertions and our smug actions. Give it a hearing and it can become a genuine force for transformation. Secondly, we need to really ask ourselves where we are time-wise in our lives. The tendency to dwell on past and future at the exclusion of living in the present with God undermines our capacity to allow the transformative power of repentance some traction in our lives. The only change that can take place is here, now. On the basis of those two attitudes, listening to our conscience and living in the present, we will have the foundation to allow the Kingdom of God to transform our minds and hearts.
Looking at art works or movies is a great way to open ourselves to the meaning of the Gospels. Seeing can bypass our preconceived notions, giving us new vistas of enlightenment. With painting or sculpture one needs to sit quietly and absorb the dynamics of the piece. The drama of movies more easily engages us and offers a way to conversation about the Gospel with other members of your family.
This Sunday's Visual Meditation
Early Byzantine Icon of John the Baptist.
John the Baptist preaching by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
The Preaching of John the Baptist by Bacchiacca.
John the Baptist Preaching by Rembrandt.
St John the Baptist and the Pharisees by James Tissot .
John the Baptist Preaching Jesus MAFA .
The purpose of mulling meditations is to offer a few ideas that one can mull about while doing other occupations. There are many things we do in our day that do not require our full attention - some things which are largely done on automatic pilot - like driving a car or peeling the potatoes. While we give these our attention, part of our mind is still at work mulling on other things and unless it is given something positive to feed on, we easily feed on negative thoughts. Personally I find mulling time the most likely time for God to get through to me. Because I am not so conscious of myself, God gets through the cracks and opens my heart to look at life differently.
Two practical times for mulling can be when exercising and when driving. Some small preparations for integrating such prayer into these exercises can be helpful.
As you do your preparatory stretches, pray the line of the Psalm "I praise you God for I am wonderfully made!"
Similarly when doing your concluding stretches use the prayer of St Clare "Praised be you, my God, for creating me!"
Have some music that you find helps you turn you mind and heart to God and play that for the first 10 minutes or so of your trip.
This Sunday's Mulling Meditation
As you go through this week, mull on what you put your faith in. What are the aspects of your faith that give you support and sustenance? Are they what is truly central to faith in God?
In the Letter of James, we are told that the Scriptures are like a mirror in which we can see ourselves. In this type of meditation we take a piece of Scripture, hold it before us and consider what echoes within our heart. These echoes help us to see who we are before God and how we are loved. What usually echoes in us are situations that we are dealing with in our lives. When something strikes us, we do not actively try to solve the situation or work it through. Rather we sit holding it in God's love. The point of such a meditation is to make space within the situation for God's love to be. In 'sitting with' such a situation, painful or sad, we come to recognise the love of God that is at work on our lives. The suggestions for Mirror reflections can also be used for Exercise reflections but wouldn't be advised for Driving Prayer as often some degree of emotion or distraction might rise in such prayer.
This Sunday's Mirror Meditation
Rest in the love of your God.
Hear the call of John the Baptist to repentance.
Think of the things that you feel you need to repent from. Sit with this and ask yourself what do you think and feel about these behaviours. What good do they do you? What bad do they do you?
Do you still feel you need to repent from them…of just from aspects of those behaviours? If you decide to change, what will you do to honour the good you get from those behaviours?
Rest in the love of your God.