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Sunday 8 December 2019: Advent 2


The God who speaks

Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15: 4-13; Matthew 3:1-12


By Ashley Beck

Assistant Priest, Senior Lecturer in Pastoral Ministry at St Mary’s University, Twickenham and current President of the catholic Theological Association of Great Britain

Context: a solemn Mass with a racially mixed congregation of 180 or so mostly older adults

Aim: to reflect on Bible Sunday and the Year of the Word

The Catholic Church in this country has recently begun a special period of reflection entitled The God who speaks: A Year of the Word. It is designed to help Catholics get to know the Bible better; we’re often conscious that, compared to some other Christians, we don’t know the Scriptures very well; many Catholics don’t even possess their own Bible. Things are better than they used to be, but we still have a long way to go. For this ‘Year of the Word’ special material is being made available, and special talks and courses being organised all over the country.

As it happens this fits in with a special theme for today, the Second Sunday in Advent, which the Catholic Church in this country has adopted in recent years – calling it Bible Sunday. This is borrowed directly from the Church of England which has kept this as Bible Sunday for centuries, drawing on the second reading today from Romans.

All this works in Advent because it’s a time of year when people do come to church in reasonably large numbers for carol services: for many it’s the only time they ever encounter the Bible. The scripture readings we all encounter include some of the best poetry we ever find in the Bible, together with narratives and imagery which are central to our faith. It’s fifty years this year since our cycle of readings for Mass was radically changed to enable to hear more scripture when we come to Mass.

The Coming of God’s Reign

The rich poetry of the book of Isaiah is a big part of the Advent journey if we let it speak to us. What is striking about this poetry is the message conveyed by the imagery. Horticulture and wild animals depict the coming of God’s reign, God’s kingdom. This coming kingdom will be characterised by justice for the poor and by new relationships within God’s creation. This powerful reading is an inspiration for the Church’s message how we should care for the created order, expressed so clearly in Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’.

St Paul in Romans gives us part of the vision for today. Of course, in the late – 50s AD what he meant by scripture was not his own writings, let alone the gospels; but scriptures of the Jewish people, the Law and the Prophets, read week by week in synagogue. The simplicity of what he’s saying can help us on this Bible Sunday and in this Year of the Word. The scriptures are important for a simple reason: they give hope. Remember the context – these are the scriptures which gave support to the Jews, in the midst of persecution and exile; indeed, they have throughout Jewish history. Christians view our Bible in the same way.

There’s a lot about the world and this country at the end of 2019 which is pretty depressing: hatred, suspicion, violence, populist nationalism, fear of the future. As men and women of faith we need the Bible to give us hope in the midst of this; and this hope can improve our relationships with each other: ‘May he who helps us when we refuse to give up, help you all to be tolerant with each other, following the example of Christ Jesus…’ This means we must reflect on Scripture in the right way – not as religious escapism, but to enable us to look at the world with the eyes of faith, with hope that springs from faith.

In the Advent story Saint John the Baptist is a key figure. In the run-up to Christmas, we’re invited by the Church to look at our lives and examine our consciences to prepare for the coming of the Saviour; that’s why most parishes have reconciliation services in Advent to help us go to confession. The Baptist is a jarring and challenging figure, portrayed in the gospel as an outcast by choice; in this passage, in terms of his message, he doesn’t take any prisoners, attacking both Pharisees and Sadducees, rival religious groups. This gospel is meant to be a challenging message for all of us.

In the year of the Word, and on this Bible Sunday in Advent, we’re given the opportunity to drink from the well of the Scriptures – to give us hope in today’s world, and to look at our lives.

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