This is an Advent more full than usual of fears and hopes. The grace of Advent is that it sifts these, orders them, purifies them, teaching us to discard where necessary and attune our hope to the promises of God.
The Advent Invitatory goes, “Come let us adore the Lord, the King who is to come.” Once when I was at Pluscarden Abbey, we had a visit from the former King of Spain, Juan Carlos. He was staying nearby and we were told that he wished to attend Sunday Mass. There were preliminary visits by security men. One of our monks was given a dedicated mobile, and on the Sunday morning, as we waited, the phone would ring and a voice would say: “the King is now 2 miles away”. Then, silence and more waiting. Then, “the King is one mile away”. Another wait. Now, “the King is coming up the drive…The King is at the church door”. It really was like this – he was late too! If ever there was, there’s a parable for Advent.
Today’s beautiful 1st reading from Isaiah – “Console, my people, console them” – opens what’s sometimes called the Book of Consolation. In it, there’s a voice crying: prepare the road; the Lord is coming. There’s a messenger shouting, “Here he is.” It’s not unlike our experience with the King. Then, in the Gospel, the “voice” and “messenger” reappear. They now have a name, a time and a place: John the Baptist by the River Jordan in the late twenties of the 1st century.
It was all very real. The Jewish people, at the beginning of the 1st c. AD, were not in a happy state, politically, economically, socially, spiritually. They were oppressed inwardly and outwardly. They were waiting for God to come, put things right, fulfil the prophecies, establish his kingdom, dispel their enemies and bring them joy. What they really felt, beyond the sordid particulars, was the lack of the divine presence. Every so often there would be false alarms, false prophets, con men on the phone, as it were, asking for their bank details, promising them wealth. But suddenly, with John the Baptist, Israel’s dedicated mobile, as it were, begins to ring. And the ring tone rings true. John, inhabitant of the wilderness, dressed in camel-skin, living on locusts and wild honey, was an authentic voice, with the ring to it of a real prophet. Like the mobile messages heralding the King of Spain, he intimates the coming of someone else. “Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am…He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” And, says the Gospel, “all Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem” were drawn by the ringing mobile, the voice, the messenger. The people responded. By being baptised in the Jordan and confessing their sins, they were making themselves into a road to carry the Lord. They were laying a landing strip as it were for the Lord’s flight to touch down. They were levelling their pride and self-importance and filling in the troughs of hopelessness. They picked up the call as it were.
What is repentance? Imagine you’re dozing on your bed or bent over your laptop, and suddenly the mobile you left downstairs rings. You get up, you leave what you were doing, and you run downstairs to pick it up and answer it. And listen. “I will hear what the Lord God has to say, a voice that speaks of peace.” Repentance is hearing the ring, getting up or turning round, being disrupted but taking the call. It’s welcoming an intrusion, in this case, Christ. This requires that our mobile be on, that we haven’t let it die or switched it off. Let’s say, the heart of each of us is a dedicated mobile, a Lord-line. Monastic tradition calls it the “memory of God”. We can call it “conscience”. We can call it a desire that springs from a sense of emptiness, a longing for something more. The heart, the inner mobile, of the people of Israel, the Gospel seems to say, was switched on.
Personally, I dislike mobiles. But what is a mobile? It is a means of connection with our fellow-human beings. It’s an instrument to take us out of ourselves and put us in touch with others. And so it can be considered a symbol. We have an inner connectivity to God, a capacity “to hear what the Lord God has to say”. If only we spent the time in prayer we spend on our mobiles! Or – to be positive – good for those who have downloaded their prayers!
When John the Baptist “appeared”, Israel’s wilderness suddenly rang with the ringtone of divine truth. “Console, my people, console them, says your God.” It was an outbreak of hope. May our Advent be that, with its prophecies and promises! May the candles be lit one after another! May our hearts respond to the voice, the knock at the door, the phone that rings! May we level our lives to receive the Lord! May we be baptised, not in a river, but in Scripture and make a good confession before Christmas! May we have the true mobile switched on! Someone is coming, someone stronger than our sins, stronger than everything.