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Second Sunday of Advent: God’s soft voice

Isaiah 40, 1-5.9-11; 2 Peter 3, 8-14; Mark 1, 1-8.

The phrase ‘cry in the wilderness’ is the leitmotif of this Sunday of Advent. In the Scriptures, this cry points to the emptiness of the wasteland that characterised both the situation of God’s people that Isaiah is addressing and the imminence of Jesus’ coming at the time of John the Baptist.

Wilderness in the Bible has a double meaning. The Hebrew word for wilderness is derived from the root of the word meaning ‘to drive out’. It is a place beyond the boundaries. In this sense, the desert stories in the Bible almost always combine two elements: danger and divine help.

Literally, ‘cry in the wilderness’ means a call unheeded to, a warning ignored. It happened in Israel’s history, and was repeated with John the Baptist, though when the Baptist appeared in the wilderness “all Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to him”.

What can the cry in the wilderness point to in our times? Perhaps there is so much in what we say, do, or omit to do and say, that remains simply a cry in the wilderness, heard by no one except your own self when its echo returns. Surely there is ‘wilderness’ in our lives, in our cities, in our relationships. That wilderness needs to be identified and addressed.

While we approach Christmas, we cannot ignore the drums of war in the background, the voices of those claiming that we have never been so near the edge of war. We all know that the way things are in our globalised world, if there is going to be war it will not simply occur on a narrow corridor and touch only two peoples. It will involve us all. Which means we are all in a wilderness, metaphorically and in reality.

It would be foolish not to heed the danger that encircles us. It would be unwise of us to simply succumb to a gloomy world view. We need the wisdom to rise to the challenge and make of the wasteland in our lives fertile ground for the Spirit. As Isaiah says, it is in the wilderness that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”.

But glory does not fall from heaven automatically. We need to work to make it happen, to create time and space for it to materialise. Isaiah is saying that wasteland of whatever nature can be transformed and serve as sacred space where we can encounter the God we believe in.

In today’s readings we also read what Peter writes about the “Day of the Lord”, marked, as he depicts it, by apocalyptic events: “The sky will vanish, the elements will catch fire and fall apart, the earth and all that it contains will be burnt up.” There were prophets of doom at all times, even in the history of Christianity, and we will continue to have some of them around. But Peter was surely not one of them.

What Peter here is referring to is more the internal turmoil we all go through when the cry in the wilderness is heeded, and when we grasp what God’s glory is really about. We are not called to be nerds or prophets of doom. We cannot afford to be naive in the face of reality or to reduce the Christian narrative to some sort of day-dreaming. Our calling is not to be churchy or inward-looking religious people.

We are called to live life, to face reality with hope, and to be imbued by God’s glory, letting it transpire from the way we joyfully live.

In our life, it is no longer John the Baptist who is crying in the wilderness. It is God’s voice itself who, as Cardinal John Henry Newman says in one of his sermons: “He is still here; He still whispers to us, He still makes signs to us. But His voice is too low, and the world’s din is so loud, and His signs are so covert, and the world is so restless, that it is difficult to determine when He addresses us, and what He says”.

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