John the Baptist once again seizes our imagination and our attention, as he does every Advent. We met him last week, “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist.” Here, he encounters priests and Levites and Pharisees. They pepper him with questions: “Who are you?” “Are you Elijah?” “Are you the prophet?” And he proclaims to them, “I AM THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING OUT IN THE DESERT, MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD, as Isaiah the prophet said.” G.K. Chesterton says that in an upside-down world, the prophet is the one who stands on his head so that he might see things aright. That’s John the Baptist, proclaiming the truth of one who is coming after him, whose sandal strap he is not worthy to untie.
With such a vivid image in front of us, I’d like us this morning to think a little deeper about prophets. In the Old Testament, Prophets are really important – they are the ones who received the word of God and made it real through their words and deeds – in tumultuous and difficult times, often at great personal cost. For example, just think, where would we be without the prophet Isaiah, whose eloquence and truth open today’s readings. But once we encounter John the Baptist, that’s pretty much the end of “prophets” in Scripture. Why? Per my instant Google theology refresher, once Jesus Christ came to fulfill all that the Old Testament prophets had revealed, there’s no more need for “prophets” as such. But, after John the Baptist, does the role of “prophet” just go away?
The Church itself actually makes clear that prophets are not an anachronism, they’re a necessity. Like it or not, all baptized Catholics are prophets. Number 783 in the Catechism lays it right out:
“Jesus Christ is the one whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and established as priest, prophet, and king. The whole People of God participates in these three offices of Christ and bears the responsibilities for mission and service that flow from them.208
Our official commission to be “priest, prophet, and king” comes to us at the Baptismal anointing. So, it’s always part of our Christian life – even if we’re very rarely if ever directly reminded of that outside of the Baptismal rite. Many American Catholics are more familiar with another three-part dicta: “pay, pray, and obey.” The latter depicts a passive faith, but for many people on both sides of the altar, a comfortable one as well. Priests, prophets, kings – those all sound like somebody else’s job. And yet, we as the People of God “bear the responsibilities for mission and service that flow” from being priest, prophet, and king.
So, by that definition, being “priest, prophet, and king” is really about being Christ-like. Those roles may not be what first come to mind when we consider practicing Christ-like behavior, but they’re there for us to take on. Again, carrying on from John the Baptist, let’s continue with “prophet”. The Catechism actually follows up and elaborates in #785, saying we act as prophets when the People “deepens its understanding and becomes Christ’s witness in the midst of this world.” So, we act as prophets as we spread the Good News to others, by our words and our actions. I looked up some homilies by prominent clergy on being a prophet in today’s Church, and mostly got back things like “be gentle”, “study the Church fathers”, “be faithful”. Which is all great and worthwhile, but maybe not very “prophetic”. But are there times when God calls us to do more to be prophetic, and to respond to prophets, in our world?
Here’s a case: A friend and I are now getting an intense call to modern-day prophecy in a book we’re studying with our Ignatian Volunteer Corps group. It’s called The Time is Now: A Call to Uncommon Courage by Joan Chittester, a Benedictine sister who’s one of the foremost “Nuns on the Bus.” She’s a pretty amazing woman. She makes an impassioned case for what she calls “prophetic spirituality” which is about “living our faith in the streets of the world, rather than just talking about it.” How to live our faith? She puts a laser focus on social justice: inequality, exploitation, suffering, destruction of the natural world and social fabric. She’s now 84 years old, and she’s seen too much in her many years on the front lines. Now she holds nothing back: she proclaims that God is calling for a new generation of fearless prophets that can speak truth to power and commit their entire life to change the world, to make straight the path to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. Just as Amos and Hosea did, Isaiah and Ezikiel, Deborah and Miriam, John the Baptist – and ultimately Christ himself and many saints, canonized and not, who have followed. It’s a powerful message.
I’ll just say Sister Joan lays out a hard challenge, even for our faith-based group that’s very committed to serving the disadvantaged. In our monthly reflections this Fall, there’s a lot of, “I’m not cut out to be a prophet.” But we listen, and reflect, and act in some ways – and we try to discern: where is God leading us? And we have a gift in Ignatian spirituality of a thorough process and support system for discernment. So keep us in the IVC in your prayers – as all of us here in this group discern where and how God calls us. One area I hope we get into today is: do you hear calls to prophetic action? Where and whom are they coming from? And how do you respond?
Sometimes I’ve felt like I’ve gone down a rabbit hole talking about prophets. I want to end by doubling back to a couple of points from the really beautiful readings for this Third Sunday of Advent.
One point on the social justice focus. Does that fall under a political ideology that can be dismissed, or put on a list of concerns – or is there a special call there? There’s a hint in today’s Gospel antiphon, where the prophet Isaiah proclaims “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.” I think that passage is there for a reason. It at least says, “look here first.” This is perhaps where the preferential option for the poor begins; where do we take it?
I’ve hauled out a lot of stuff here, but want to come back to a simple point in closing: Paul opens our second reading with beautiful, and appropriate, advice for our faith life in general: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks.” (Three of the shortest sentences in all his letters!) Rejoice – remember, this is “Gaudete (Joy) Sunday”. Also: our responsorial is “My soul rejoices in my God.” And from Isaiah 61: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord.”
Rejoice. Joy: who was the babe in the womb who “leapt with joy” as his mother met Mary, herself expectant with Jesus? John the Baptist. We don’t think of JTB as a joyous character, but there he was, leaping for joy in the presence of our Lord. And that joy drove him, as it should drive us – as we continue our Advent journey in this year of the Pandemic 2020.
As my friend and former pastor, Fr. Steve Madden, always closed his homilies, “God bless you all.”