4 Dec 2016
2nd Sunday of Advent, Year A
When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, there used to a few cooking shows and home improvement shows on tv. Shows like: This Old House with Bob Vila; the New Yankee Workshop with Norm Abram; the Frugal Gourmet; and Julia Child. And I always liked watching them, so every now and then I’ll find one on YouTube and watch it.
But something I noticed one day was how “slow” those old shows are. And by “slow” I mean they’re slow-paced. A camera shot can last maybe 15 or 20 seconds before it changes to another. And that’s so different from today’s cooking and home improvement shows. I was watching some show on the Food Network, and I saw how the camera shots lasted about a second, and then it was onto the next shot, and then to the next, and the next, and the next. The pace of these types of shows has really gotten a lot quicker than they were in the 80s and 90s.
It’s the same material, but ramped up quite a bit to make it interesting. But, then again, they pretty much have to be fast-paced in order to attract viewers, because that’s what people want today in television shows. And I mention this because those television viewers are our audience as well. They’re the ones we’re supposed to be preaching the gospel to; we ourselves might be part of that audience.
But how does an old, very old institution (the Church) preach the gospel—an old, old gospel—to such a fast-paced world that doesn’t have time for the gospel? A world that only has time for sound bytes and tweets? And, of course, those bytes and tweets better be catchy or the audience will be gone in the blink of an eye. How does the Church preach the gospel to a world that’s too busy for the gospel?
One way is through personal witness. This is what we see in John the Baptist. Now, of course, the world way back when he lived was much slower than it is today. But, still, there were people around then who “didn’t have time” for the gospel of Jesus; people like the Pharisees and Sadducees. Now, they weren’t necessarily bad people; they just thought they had it all figured out and preoccupied with other things, and so there wasn’t any room left in their hearts or minds for Jesus. In that respect, it’s similar to what we face today.
What John the Baptist brought to the scene was a personal charisma, an obvious devotion to the Word of God—and it was very attractive. Now, when we hear about John the Baptist, he almost sounds like an oddball—dressed up in camel hair clothing, wandering through the desert, eating locusts and wild honey. But he was a very successful preacher; he had a huge following; he started his own movement, and was so influential that King Herod felt threatened by him. That’s why he had John arrested and eventually beheaded. John the Baptist was a major figure, and he preached the gospel very effectively through his personal witness.
And we know he was effective by the sheer numbers of people who repented and came to him for baptism. Even many of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to him to be baptized. Of course, when they approached him, John kind of laid into them there, calling them a “brood of vipers.” It was harsh, it was true, and maybe it even caused some of them to rethink what they were doing in life. After all, that’s what it means to “repent;” it means to think again, to have a change of mind and heart, and get on a different track. This is what parents do for their children; it’s what teachers do for their students; it’s what priests should do for their parishioners—they provide a personal witness that intrigues others enough so they might consider changing their mind or heart about something—especially about God and faith.
A personal witness to faith says, “Look at me as an example.” And about the time you want to say, “But, Father, I’m hardly an example of Catholic living,” John the Baptist would step in and simply say, “Repent.” Repent, and that will be example enough.
When St. Francis and his followers would go around, they’d introduce themselves as Penitents of Assisi. And by that they simply meant they were a band of people dedicated to the idea of reorienting their lives so that Christ would be the center. And that’s the work of any disciple of Christ: the daily work of repentance, the work of reorienting our minds toward Christ. As long as we have that desire to be a better friend of Christ in our heart, we can be an example for others; we can be an effective preacher of the gospel—even if we only ever touch one other person in life; who knows how many lives that other person will touch.
This idea of personal witness is especially important to our youth. The seminary in Indiana I used to go to is operated by a community of Benedictine monks. And every summer they have a program that brings youth in from all over the country. And I guess I’ve always seen that as an odd coupling: youth and Benedictine monks. But it works, and it works well, largely because of the personal witness of the monks.
Now, they aren’t the most “exuberant” and “vibrant” of people, those monks. But they are faithful; faithful and deeply, quietly joyful in their chosen vocation. And, because of that, those monks are also incredibly inviting to those they meet. And when I think about that, it’s not hard to see how a community of monks in the middle of nowhere can be such effective preachers of the gospel. By their personal witness, they invite people to repentance, to a change of heart—they invite people to slow down and reconsider their relationship to the Lord, and whether, in fact, Jesus is the Lord of their lives.
That being said, however, it isn’t simply personal witness that spreads the gospel. It’s also fidelity to Jesus as he is.
It’s tempting in the Church today to “remake” Jesus and the Church into something more attractive. Of course, he is charismatic, attractive, and influential. He’s all those things that Isaiah talks about in reference to the Messiah: “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord.” And so, Jesus can have a certain rock star quality about him that’s attractive.
But he also has those points which aren’t quite so flashy, like: the Cross, or all his talk about repentance, his concern for the poor and the outcast, and so on. Jesus is exciting, except when he’s not. And so, if Jesus had a television show today, somebody would probably say to him, “You know, Jesus, you have to build up what’s positive; focus on what makes people feel good about themselves; you have to stress the excitement of what it means to be your disciple. That’s what people want; that’s what sells today, Jesus. All that talk about the cross and sin . . . it’s just to going to kill the ratings.” The problem with that is, of course, that’s not really telling the whole story of who Jesus is.
And this is important to everyone, including youth, because as much as we’re a fast-paced world, on a deeper level we still value things like integrity and depth of character. If we’re going to present Jesus (and his Church) to others, let’s be sure to present the full depth and richness of what it is that we’re all about. Let’s offer them a seven-course meal, not just a sweet treat to get them in the door.
And, for that matter, let’s not settle ourselves for a shallow Jesus. Let’s go deep, let’s go the path of repentance like John the Baptist says. Let’s reorient our lives toward God, a little bit each day, and see what kind of depth and richness we’ll find. In a world of sound bytes and tweets, let’s try for something more substantial. After all, if we don’t have time for Christ, then what are we filling our lives with? If he isn’t the reason behind what we do in life, then what are we doing?