by f. Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente Missionaries.
New York/Paris, December 06, 2020. | Second Sunday of Advent
Book of Isaiah 40: 1-5.9-11; Second Letter of Peter 3: 8-14; Saint Mark 1:1-8.
In the Bible, our relationship with God is often described as climbing a mountain. Let’s mention just one example: And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain (Ex 3: 12).
It is a beautiful image that expresses deep realities of spiritual life, but, like all metaphors, it has its limitations. In this case, it fails to reflect that God has the initiative, that he is continually and tirelessly seeking us out. An extreme way of reflecting this reality is a famous poem by the English poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907), entitled The Hound of Heaven, which describes how God pursues us with the perseverance that a hunting dog follows a hare. Today, in the First Reading and in the Gospel of St. Mark, we see how mountains and valleys appear…to be eliminated.
This brings a new perspective to our relationship with God. He always has the initiative, He is the one who approaches us, who seeks us, who reaches out to us. And it is up to us to prepare the way for the Lord, which involves to remove the obstacles represented by valleys and mountains.
This image of the valleys and mountains is indicating to us that in our spiritual life there are two intimate activities that we must develop, but that are closely related.
The first is to level the mountains and the second to fill the valleys. Both refer to preparing the way for God’s arrival in our hearts.
St. John of the Cross, when referring to the text of today’s Gospel, stated that removing obstacles from the path means living a total detachment from the world. I would dare to say that filling in the valleys means living with passion and intensity the occasions to love our neighbor, not allowing any opportunity to be lost, however small it may seem to us. In this way, levelling the mountains and filling the valleys appear as complementary tasks.
Perhaps we can illustrate this with a classic film, The Horse Whisperer (1998), where it seems to me that the protagonist manages to overcome an emotional attachment and thus keep alive and fruitful the love for her daughter and her husband.
Teenager Grace and her best friend Judith go out one winter’s morning to ride their horses. As they ride up an icy slope, both horses fall, dragging the girls onto a road and being hit by a truck. Judith and her horse are killed, while Grace and her horse Pilgrim are both severely injured.
Grace, left with a partially amputated right leg, is bitter and withdrawn after the accident. Meanwhile, Pilgrim is traumatized and uncontrollable to the extent that it is suggested he be put down. Grace’s mother, Annie, a strong-minded and hardworking magazine editor, refuses to allow Pilgrim to be put down, sensing that somehow Grace’s recovery is linked with Pilgrim’s.
Desperate for a way to heal both Grace and Pilgrim, Annie tracks down a special horse healer, a “horse whisperer”, Tom who lives in the mountains. Tom agrees to help, but only if Grace also takes part in the process. Grace reluctantly agrees, and she and her mother go to stay at the ranch where Tom lives with his brother’s family. As Pilgrim and Grace slowly overcome their trauma, Annie and Tom begin to develop a mutual attraction. However, they are both reluctant to act on these feelings; Annie is married and Tom had his heart broken before, when his wife left him. Tom also asks Grace to tell him about what happened with her and Pilgrim in order to find out what the horse is feeling. At first, Grace is reluctant, but eventually gathers up her courage, and tearfully tells him about the accident.
The status quo between Annie and Tom is broken when Robert, Grace’s father and Annie’s husband, unexpectedly shows up at the ranch. Annie is increasingly torn by her feelings for Tom and her love for her family. Soon, with Tom’s help, Grace finally takes the last step to heal herself and Pilgrim – riding Pilgrim again. As the family get ready to leave the ranch, Robert tells Annie that he knew he was in love with her more than she loved him, and that if he could be a better father, husband or lawyer then it didn’t matter, he did it all for the love he had for her. He felt that he didn’t need more, he knows she is not sure how she feels about him, and now he wants her to make a choice, and not to come home until she is sure what she wants. Although Annie wishes she could stay with Tom on the ranch, she departs, driving away from the ranch, while Tom watches her go from the top of a hill.
Yes, certainly our detachment is intimately linked to our ability to do good for others. This is why particular emphasis is given by the evangelist to clothing and frugal food of John. In this way, we open the door to Providence, which does not take long to be noticed.
That is what Isaiah says in the First Reading. At the time when everything becomes levelled, that is, when everything becomes normal and settled, then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. In other words, the moment, we give up our resentments, we find peace capacity for doing good; the moment we give up our attachments, we no longer compete and crave; the moment we learn to accept, we become at peace. Yes, the corollary of unhappiness in life is joy. That is why Peter says that when we live lives without spot or stain we will be at peace, we will be able to love, which is our true nature.
The two baptisms that John announces, the one that he himself performs and the one that Christ will perform “with the spirit” are represented in the mountains that are flattened and in the valley that is filled. The first cleanses us of something that we cannot completely eliminate by ourselves, our Attachment to the World and the Abnegation of the ego. The second brings life, our authentic life. And this is the beginning of the Good News.
For many the gospels are only the four books wherein the events of Jesus’ life are narrated. Yet, the use of calling these texts “gospels” was introduced several decades after they were written. Before this term did not indicate a book, but simply a joyful news brought by a messenger. The proclamation of victory, lucky events, peace agreements and, above all, the news about the birth, life, the glorious deeds of the emperors were gospels because they aroused hopes of welfare, health, peace.
By using the term “gospel”, Mark intends to tell his readers: the gospels of the emperors betrayed the expectations. The joyful news that does not disappoint is another one: it is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It was really startling and provocative for Mark, speaking in the heart of Rome, to proclaim Jesus, a crucified Jew, the son of God. The enthusiasm in our apostolic life comes from knowing that this great story of Israel has come to its climax through Christ…in us!
The question is, can we really live a liberated and joyful life as prophesied in the First Reading? Or is the prophecy just another utopian dream?
The good news begins by saying that, although nothing seems to change, nothing seems to announce the arrival of the promised new heaven and earth (2 Pe 3:13), we see misunderstandings, divisions, separations, conflicts of all kinds, mistrust, discouragement… everything seems unchanged for centuries and neither the society nor each one of us seems easy to change… in spite of all that with the arrival of Christ we can find from now on a peace that neither the prophets nor the most faithful people of the Old Testament or of other religious traditions had ever enjoyed before. From the moment of the annunciation to the Incarnation to the public life of Jesus, the promise of God unfolds.
And immediately, the Gospel of Mark begins with John the Baptist’s call to repentance.
We all know examples from the past and from modern times of the power of God’s love, whose efficacy depends only on our acceptance:
Shane O’Doherty was the first former IRA (Irish Republican Army) terrorist to come out publicly for peace. He was sent to jail for mailing letter bombs. At his trial as a terrorist for the IRA, he had to sit and listen to people tell what it was like to open those letters. Fourteen people testified against him, all innocent victims, many of them mutilated because of what he had done.
He said it was sitting in that court, face to face with people who had been harmed by his actions that his conversion began. But it was completed in prison, in his cell, as he was reading Scripture. First, he experienced Jesus’ love for him. Then he experienced Jesus’ requirement of him. He knew he had to change. When he got out of prison, O’Doherty started to talk about building a new future in Ireland, instead of just repeating the past. He found that his life was now being threatened by his former colleagues. But he continued to do it, because, he said, “I believe that one person is able to make a difference just by talking about peace, just by making his witness. It begins in any nation, in any community, with one person, then another, and then another, saying: I’m going to accept the future that God is giving to us, rather than simply repeating the past.
We are invited to prayerfully contemplate what the coming of Jesus means to us during this Advent season. Jesus clearly showed us how to make straight the path of our lives so that we could journey toward the kingdom, living a blameless life so that we can share the joy of the kingdom as Prophet Isaiah tells us.
And of course, we have to share this joy. Share the joy. There is no better time of the year to share the joy that come from being Catholic than during Advent. Pope Francis said: If you happen to be with an atheist who tells you that he does not believe in God, you can read him the whole library, where it says that God exists, and where it is proof that God exists and he will still not believe. However, if in the presence of that same atheist you witness to a consistent, Christian life, something will begin to work in his heart…It will be your witness that brings him to the restlessness on which that the Holy Spirit works (2/27/2014).
Unless we are convinced that it is of a greater joy to live a blameless life than to live our rotten life of self-centeredness, anger and bitterness, then we will not give up our old life. So, true repentance is not simply to turn away from what we are doing but to turn into ourselves so that we might be faithful to who we are. This is true repentance.
Repentance is the call to be faithful to oneself. This is what Peter meant when he spoke about living a blameless life. To live a blameless life is to live a holy life, a life that is wholesome; a life that is integrated; a life that is lived harmoniously within oneself and with others; a life that is in Christ. That is, a life lived in clear conscience, true fidelity to oneself as a child of God. This gives us real and lasting peace and joy.
The last part of the First Reading describes the return of the exiles in the holy city. Their guide is the Lord who preceded them and, as a shepherd leads his sheep gathers the lambs in his arm and gently leading those that are with young.
The image is moving. It shows God’s tenderness towards the weak. Tender, sweet, patient, He respects the time and spiritual rhythm of each one. He values those who walk quickly but directs his attentions and concerns to one who advances with difficulty, the one who lingers along the way.
As Peter says, God has been patient with us all this while. Day after day and year after year, He waits for us, even though we are so slow to respond to His love and invitation. God transcends time. He is always inviting us. But the question remains: Am I going to miss another opportunity again? Am I going to miss the opportunity to flatten my mountains and fill my valleys?