A reflection on the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2022.
In March 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero preached a very powerful sermon. During a dangerous civil war in El Salvador, he said:
Each week I go about the country, listening to the cries of the people, their pain from so much crime, and the ignominy of so much violence. Each week I ask the Lord to give me the right words to console, to denounce, to call for repentance. And even though I may be a voice crying in the desert, I know that the church is making an effort to fulfill its mission.
I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, ‘Thou shall not kill.’ No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order.
In the name of God, in the name of the suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God; stop the repression.
In his own words, Saint Oscar Romero was “a voice crying in the desert,” the wilderness of his time and place. His was a voice that implored the people for a change of heart, a change of life, a recovery of conscience, and obedience to the Law of God.
The Gospel of the day (Mt 3:1-12) speaks about the “voice of one crying in the wilderness.” The Scripture identifies John the Baptist as the “voice of one crying out in the desert.” This voice was not asking for affirmations from people. The voice of the Baptist was concerned with faithfulness to God and to His message.
The Voice in the Wilderness Asked for Repentance
The voice of the prophet John the Baptist cried out for repentance, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt 3:2). Jesus would begin His preaching with the same message, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15). The Baptist would administer the Baptism of repentance. His was a voice that called to dust the cobwebs off the pews.
John the Baptist is not preaching in the temple but in the desert. The desert, we see in the life of the Baptist, is a place of new beginnings, a place that requires vulnerability and abandoning oneself completely to the care of God. Baptism in the desert is the start of a new life of repentance. The Baptist identifies this new life of repentance with simplicity, authenticity, and the ability to see God in our midst.
This new life begun in the desert is a simple one. John wore extremely simple clothing: a camel’s-hair garment cinched with a leather belt. His food was simple even for the poor, as he ate locusts and honey. He lived in the desert without the comforts and luxuries of the city. His is the voice that called for simplicity of life.
John is blunt about his message. He denounces evil wherever he finds it, accusing Herod of living a loose moral life (Mt 14:4), addressing the Scribes and the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers” (3:7), and summoning the people to righteousness. Claim to ancestry is not enough, the Baptist makes clear, as lineage means nothing to God: “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones” (3:9). Even baptism is not enough. The touchstone is authenticity, as he preaches: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (3:8). His is the voice that calls for authenticity of life.
There is God mightier than himself, John says, “who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” (3:11) and who will burn the chaff in the eternal fire (3:12). That God who is among them looks like one in the crowd seeking to be baptized, and yet He is the God of justice, the God on the side of the poor and marginalized. The Baptist’s is the voice calling out to recognize God in their midst.
The Voice in the Wilderness Echoes Today
Psalm 95 says,
Oh, that today you would hear his voice:
Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah,
as on the day of Massah in the desert. (v. 7-8)
Jesus says in Matthew 11:15, “He who has ears, let him hear.” The voice that cried out in Meribah and Massah still echoes today. The people who have ears to hear, ought to hear.
Listen to the voice calling us to repentance. We need to restore Jesus to the prime place reserved only for Him. We must stop pretending that all is OK.
Listen to the voice asking us for a simple lifestyle. We should recognize that crowding our lives with things is not an answer to the deep emptiness in our lives.
Listen to the voice asking for authenticity. Many of us are mired in religious distractions that take us away from focusing on what should really concern us: authenticity in our relationships, justice, faith, community participation, and reaching out to the poor.
Listen to the voice crying in the wilderness for ecological justice. Listen to the voice asking us to recognize Jesus in our midst, among the poor and the marginalized, in immigrants and refugees, in the deviant, in the homeless, and in broken people.
May the voice in the wilderness speak in our hearts, speak in our families, speak in our churches, and speak in our communities, so that one day we will say, “We have prepared the way of Lord.”
Fr. Fredrick Devaraj comes from India. He was a member of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists of Bangalore Province. Now he is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, serving at St. Alban Roe Catholic Church.