Second Sunday of Advent
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Psalm 84 (85): 9-14; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
6 December 2020
“‘Comfort, give comfort to my people,’ says your God!” – Isaiah 40:1
In the first reading, the prophet reports this command. In the sorrows of life, who does not long for comfort? Yet, what is comfort?
When we want it, sometimes what we want is just what the good shepherd gives his lost sheep—we want God to carry us. But a child that is carried all the time will never learn to walk, to leap and run. That child, weak enough already to be carried, will get only weaker as the carrying goes on. And, comfort isn’t a matter of giving weakness. It’s a matter of giving strength—strength for walking, even over very rough roads.
In fact, the “fort” in “comfort” comes from the Latin word for “strong”. The “com” in “comfort” is from the Latin word for “with”. To give comfort to someone is to lend him some of your strength. He is more able to stand on his own feet and walk because you are with him.
But what is the comfort of God? Where is it? How do we find it?
The Gospel says that Christ baptises his own with the Holy Spirit. Because of this Baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within each person who comes to Christ. And so, anyone who comes to Christ and receives his Baptism will not walk the wild and rocky road of life alone. God is so much with him that, in the person of the Holy Spirit, God is within him.
God, we know that if you are for us, even within us, who can be against us? This is strength indeed. Thank you for giving us the Holy Spirit—“the Comforter”. Amen.
Dr Eleonore Stump
Saint John Baptising in the River Jordan – Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665)
“Saint John Baptising in the River Jordan”, c. 1630s. Oil on canvas. 96 x 121 cm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. Public Domain.
Nicolas Poussin was born in Normandy in 1594. He was to become the leading painter of the classical Baroque style, although most of his working life was spent in Rome. Most of his works were on religious and mythological subjects painted for a small group of Italian and French collectors. In a short time, he was in Paris as first painter to King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu. He returned to Rome, dissatisfied with the overwhelming workload and unimpressed by court intrigues.
Poussin’s works gradually became dominated by his love of landscapes, evidenced in the painting we are contemplating. St John baptises the multitudes in an ideal landscape, framed by a tree trunk on either side. Clothed in classical rather than contemporary garments, the orderly followers have arranged themselves into a carefully balanced frieze. As always, Poussin has approached this work from the tradition of order, clarity and harmony associated with the art of ancient Greece and Rome. Those John are baptising have left their outer garments in the foreground and, on the right, two of his followers are re-dressing. On the extreme left, a disciple gazes on the scene, chin in hand, contemplating the deeper significance of what is happening. In contrast is the man in blue on the right, listening carefully to his companion—perhaps disdainful Pharisees come to check things out. In the very centre, almost an apparition, Jesus walks towards his cousin.
Little is known of Poussin’s religious beliefs, but he certainly did not endorse the ecstatic Catholicism of Counter-Reformation Rome. His voluminous correspondence evidences that the dominant influences on his thought were the teachings of the ancient Stoic philosophers. But perhaps we can take to ourselves a statement from one of his writings: “Whatever happens to me, I am resolved to accept the good and bear the evil…. We have nothing that is really our own, we hold everything as a loan.”
Advent certainly does not have the penitential flavour of Lent, but there is a parallel. Lent is imbued with the theme of Baptism—for those preparing to enter the Church at Easter, and for those preparing to renew their baptismal vows. And yet, Advent is framed by the theme of Baptism—John the Baptist features on the second and third Sundays and on several weekdays, and the Christmas Season concludes with the feast of our Lord’s Baptism. It is entirely feasible to use the Advent/Christmas time as a lead-up to the commemoration of Jesus’ Baptism, on that day recommitting ourselves to serve the Lord whose birth we have celebrated. The liturgy should be more than re-reading a familiar story or watching the re-run of an old movie.
John was the last, and the greatest, of the prophets—people summoned by God to make known his message. And, while the prophets of the Old Testament may seem to be shadowy figures, John appears to be a man of fire, blazing with enthusiasm to show the world the Saviour who was already in its midst. “This is the Lamb of God”—a Lamb of sacrifice. In Christ, heaven was wedded to earth. John referred to Jesus, his cousin, as the Bridegroom’s friend or, as we would say, the “best man” (cf. Jn 3:29). John’s whole intent was to promote the joy of that Bridegroom and his Bride, the Church, even to the extent of laying down his life.
John was, in his own words, “A voice crying out in the wilderness” (Jn 1:23). Every saint, and we ourselves, must experience something of the loneliness of the desert, the darkness of faith out of the depths of which we cry and seem to hear no answer. We all share in John’s prophetic mission—to make Christ known. For this we were consecrated by the Holy Spirit at our Baptism. We live out our vocation authentically to the extent that we strive to allow Christ to rule our lives. “He must increase, I must decrease” (Jn 3:30), or as St Paul puts it, “No longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Ga 2:20). That we recognise Christ, and nourish the desire to make Him known, we need quite often to be alone in that quiet wilderness of prayer where he is always to be found. No saint is better qualified than John the Baptist to help us find him there.
John’s mission is not something of the past—the repentance he preached always remains the way into the kingdom he announced. John is always relevant because he calls for a preparation which we all need to make.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer
Professor Eleonore Stump is the Robert J. Henle Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University. She is honorary professor at Wuhan University and at the Logos Institute, St Andrews, and a professorial fellow at Australian Catholic University. She has published extensively in philosophy of religion, contemporary metaphysics, and medieval philosophy. Her books include Aquinas (2003), Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (2010), and Atonement (2018). She has given the Gifford Lectures (Aberdeen, 2003), the Wilde lectures (Oxford, 2006), the Stewart lectures (Princeton, 2009), and the Stanton lectures (Cambridge, 2018). She is past president of the Society of Christian Philosophers, the American Catholic Philosophical Association, and the American Philosophical Association, Central Division; and she is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Monsignor Graham Schmitzer recently retired as the parish priest at Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years, he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Fr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.