Dec 6, 2012

2nd Advent: Come Forward!

El Greco - John the Baptist

"Prepare the Way . . ."
Bar 5: 1-9
Ph 1” 4-6, 8-11
Lk 3: 1-6

A young husband and wife who felt they needed to return to some regular practice of their faith decided to visit their local Catholic Church one Sunday. Not being totally comfortable they sat in the very back pew. After a few weekends in the same spot, the whole surrounding became more comfortable so they decided to sit towards the front. They happened to sit next to a longtime parishioner who said to them, “Good to have you with us! Where are you from?”
They were both a bit taken by surprise so the wife mumbled, “From the back.”
 On this Advent journey, maybe it is good that we become more aware of who may be in the back.  In a recent study of Religion in America, the Pew Research Center (A Center not related to Church "pews" inspite of the joke above) reported that 20% of Americans now check “none” when asked about their religious affiliation. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of them are placed in the more liberal, left leaning strata of the social order. Many seem indifferent or angry about religion in general but do speak out negatively about the voice of religion’s longstanding influence on American society.  

What strikes me is the shocking uphill trend of these numbers. Back in 1957, a similar study was done. At that time only 3% of people claimed no religious affiliation. That’s about 1 in every 33 citizens. Today, with nearly 1/5 of Americans claiming“none,” it is 1 in every 5. According to the recent study, nearly 1/3 of the “nones” are under 30 yrs old. Are these our people in the back?

What this all means is a powerful influence on the culture of this Country and a great challenge for the voice of Faith which is often perceived more as the enemy than an ally. This obviously presents a great test to people of faith who may well feel as a voice crying in the wilderness.

This Sunday we hear an ancient wilderness voice which found himself up against similar tough resistance. Indeed, John the Baptist was a sign of contradiction but in a way that did not point a finger at only one particular segment of society. He called everyone to “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and invited everyone to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths . . .” (Lk 3: 1-6).

John the Baptist is a voice for moral change of heart and spirit. To face the force of evil in our souls and the poor choices we make at times and to seek forgiveness of sins. John’s image of making “straight the paths,” filling in valleys and leveling out the mountains could be seen as the sometimes hard work we need to do to cleanse our souls and get ready. To remove the obstacles and the blind spots that prevents us from seeing the Lord clearly.

God and his Word is our moral compass but we well know that our culture, as I stated above, would not agree. To change the culture of our time seems a pretty formidable task. Wringing our hands about the increasing number of “nones” among us might be an exercise in frustration since we need to begin in our own pew before we can invite those in the “back” to come forward.

Where does that leave us? What have Christians done in the past? Maybe we can learn from them.

We begin with ourselves; with our own change of heart and mind. Some may feel we need to go out on the battle field and fight the good fight. But, John the Baptist poses for us today the same message of hope and promise he announced in the desert of his time. That is, that God will step in to human history at any time. For our Christian ancestors, who found themselves up against the wall, John’s call to personal repentance gave them hope for they knew that God was about to step in for them.

Though his call was time and person specific - Jesus was about to appear on the scene in John’s day, his clarion call to conversion should be taken as a daily reminder that God is constantly present to us who seek for him. The way to change the culture around us is to change ourselves first. John stood out in the desert like a billboard. Why can’t we as well in the conviction of our Catholic faith? Doing all things in love we can become a sign of hope because the message of the Gospel is beyond politics and will transform the culture around us through our example.

But, more and more I’m beginning to think that being truly Catholic today has become an alternative lifestyle. That’s the concern for it all. We have many people in the back who need to come forward and sit with us. And we pray that in time more and more will be inspired and moved to reconsider coming home.

But, do we have hope for confidence in God’s promise? Is it time to experience the forgiveness of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Our gathering at the Eucharist is a moment to remind ourselves that God means what he says and his promise is always kept.

Our first reading this Sunday from Baruch 5: 1-9 catches the whole theme of this season: “Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children . . . rejoicing they are remembered by God . . .”