HOMILY : Advent 2
I met a student this week who said she had stopped being a Catholic because she thought the Mass was dull – the same words repeated each week. Actually she was wrong, as many of the words we use at Mass are different each week, but we certainly do say some prayers, each week, each day that do not vary and that, and the fact that the Mass is not as entertaining or exciting as some Protestant worship, can make people dismiss the Catholic Church as dull and boring. Life can be a bit like that too can’t it? The same problems that never seem to go away, the same stories of war and disaster on the news, the same people to talk to and the same place of work.
The answer to such problems, whether in life or in the Church, is not to try and make things endlessly different, endlessly exciting, but to find deeper meaning in the familiar and ordinary. If repetitive prayers seem dull, then we are failing to pray beneath them at a deeper level. If our minds simply stay on the surface, then we are missing out. The people that Isaiah is speaking to in today’s first reading (Is 11:1-10) have the same problem. Their leaders, the descendants of great King David (who was never dull!) appear to have lost it. All seems hopeless and dead for them! So Isaiah compares all this to a vine stock, and those of you who have seen one in winter and early spring will know what I mean. All the old growth that bore fruit has gone, and what is left looks like a dead bit of wood, with no hope of new life.
Isaiah reminds us that a shoot will spring from this stock that appears so dead, that there is life deep within, that we need to look deeper. “Oh well, I’ve tried that” we say “And it’s just no good. I just feel nothing!” This is where we need to listen to St Paul today. (Romans 15:4-9) He tells us that the Bible teaches us how to hope. He reminds us “how people who did not give up were helped by God.”
This isn’t an easy message is it, to keep on hoping for the future when all seems cold and dead? Surely this is why the Church has chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus in the middle of winter and why one of the main messages of Advent is this message of hope.
Jesus warned people against looking for outward signs of the presence of God. He sighed over the disciples when they couldn’t see the deeper meaning beneath his actions and his stories.
It is just the same today. So many people say “If the Church were only livelier, more people would come to Mass”. The Church, like Jesus, refuses to become a place of entertainment. If people come simply to get a spiritual fix, then they are not coming for the right reason, and the fix they are getting will in the end be something pretty shallow. The true Church of Jesus Christ, like the stock of Jesse, may appear pretty solid and dull at times, but, in the end, it is out of its very dullness that true fruit is produced. If you leave all last years growth on the vine, then the harvest the next year is pretty sparse.
And so we come to John the Baptist in our Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12). He is faced with people who have come out to the Jordan to be entertained by this man dressed in weird clothes. He calls them a “Brood of vipers” and challenges to repent! But that word “repent” does not mean a shallow “being sorry” – a shallow surface religious feeling. No, it means a real deep turning to God, and it is that, he says that bears fruit! And there’s the image of the vine again, that we heard earlier. This is the Christmas message too. God ought to come in glory to a great palace with twinkly lights, but instead he comes to a simple girl called Mary in a dirty old stable. But Mary fulfils Isaiah’s prophecy, for she is of the line of David, and so from her comes one on whom “the spirit of the Lord rests.”
As with the Church, so with our lives, so with the world! Often things can appear dull and hard, and it is only by persisting that we can find hope. Without this deep sense that God can work when all seems hopeless, there is no point in believing at all. In fact there is no point in life! We learn hope in the Mass by discovering the deep mystical meaning lying beneath the surface of things that seem the same. The same prayers, the same rituals, repeated over and over again! And yet they are all there to draw us into a different and deeper way of relating to God and to the world. Finding hope where all seems hopeless is an essential part of being a Christian and it means that we carry on working for God and for his world, however dark, or dull, things may seem. Remember Jesus said “For God, nothing is impossible!”