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Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese
of Detroit, Michigan *
And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stump of Jesse, and
a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord
shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit
of counsel and strength, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the
Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. And
he shall not judge by appearance, neither decide by hearsay, but with justice
shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.
He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath
of his lips shall he slay the wicked. Justice shall be the girdle
of his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips. And the wolf shall
dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the
calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall
lead them. And the cow and the bear shall be neighbors; their young
ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the baby shall play by the cobra's den, and the weaned child shall
put his hand on the adder's lair. They shall not hurt nor destroy
in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of
the Lord, as the waters cover the sea. And it shall come to pass
in that day, that the root of Jesse, that standeth for an ensign of the
peoples, unto him shall the nations seek; and his resting-place shall be
For whatever was written previously was written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of the same mind one with another according to Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, receive one another, even as Christ also received you,
to the glory of God. For I say that Christ had been made a minister
of the circumcised for the truth of God, that he might confirm the promises
given unto the fathers, and that the Gentiles might glorify God for his
mercy. As it is written: Therefore will I praise you among
the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name.
And in those days appeared John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, "Repent; for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." For it was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said, "A voice of one crying in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths."
Now John wore clothing made of camel's hair, and a leather girdle about his waist. And his food was locusts and wild honey. Jerusalem and all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan, went out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his
baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers. Who warned you to
flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance, and
think not to say within yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'
For I say to you, that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from
these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and cast into
the fire. I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance, but he that
is coming after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear.
He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire. His fan
is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor, and
he will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with
* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions against Iraq.
has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published
numerous articles and reports.
** Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.
For your convenience, the
Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the
Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright ©
1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C.,
may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic
|A few weeks ago when Pope John
Paul II preached his opening homily at the synod of bishops, he told the
bishops that we, speaking about them and about the church, are called upon
to be poor at the service of the gospel. That we are called to be
servants of the revealed word who, when needed, will raise their voices
in defense of the least, denouncing the abuses against those who Amos (See
Sunday of September 30.) had called the carefree and the revelers to be
prophets who speak with courage. That is the call that we in the
church have today. Certainly, it is a call that is given primarily
to the leaders of the church, but our whole church must be prophetic.
If we listen deeply to the lessons of today’s liturgy on this Second Sunday of Advent, we will find for ourselves models of prophets and of how each of us is to be prophetic.
First of all, we listen to Isaiah. In that passage from this morning’s liturgy, he was speaking at a time that would be very comparable to the situation of our own day. We are very aware, right now, of how there seems to be so much social breakdown, so much violence in our world. We still have not recovered from the terror of September 11. We are very aware of the war that is going on in Afghanistan and we are aware of violence in our society and in so many parts of the world. It was just that sort of time when Isaiah spoke out. It was a time when God’s people were being attacked. The Assyrian armies were outside Jerusalem, ready to destroy it. Hezekiah, the king at the time, was weak and unable to be the kind of leader the people needed. Everything seemed to be in chaos and ready to come apart. Death, destruction and violence were all around. Yet, in the midst all of that, Isaiah was able to proclaim a word of hope. In the midst of all that suffering and violence, Isaiah proclaimed that there would be a new descendent coming from David, the great king of the past, and that this new descendent would raise up a new people and there would be a time of hope, a time of life, a time of joy.
As we heard in that first lesson today, Isaiah describes this new leader as one who will act toward the poor with justice, will bring about profound change, and show that there is hope for justice in the world. This new leader will have truth as his girdle and justice will be the belt around his waist. He will not be one who is armed with weapons of war, but will only be one who brings justice and truth and ultimately peace.
Isaiah goes on to show how, when this happens, extraordinary things will take place. The wolf will dwell with the lamb, the leopard will rest beside the kid, the calf and the lion cub will feed together, and a little child will lead them. Befriending each other, the cow and the bear will see the young ones lie down together. Like cattle, the lion will eat hay. By the cobra’s den, the infant will play. The child will put his hand into the viper’s lair. No one will harm or destroy over my holy mountain. As water fills the sea, the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God. And with it will come this kind of harmony and peace and joy.
The reign of God is the vision that Isaiah proclaims in the midst of suffering and violence, chaos and death.
If we turn to the gospel, we find John the Baptist telling us, “Now is the time. The reign of God is here, it is at hand.” And what has to happen, John is telling us as he proclaims God’s word in this prophetic way, is that we must be ready to change our lives.
John is the kind of prophet who is ready to denounce as Pope John Paul suggests that sometimes prophets must do. John denounces very powerfully those who abuse their role.
When he saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he baptized, he said to them (Matthew tells us), “Brood of vipers, who told you that you could escape the punishment that is to come? Let it be seen that you are serious in your conversion. Do not think that we have Abraham for our father. I tell you that God can raise children for Abraham from these very stones.”
Those leaders were presumptuous. They thought that they, in some way, could always depend on the fact that their ancestor was Abraham. That this gave them special privilege that they were the chosen people and had not to worry about being converted. But John challenges them and tells them that this presumption they are depending upon will not save them. They must be converted.
As I reflected on those words of John to the leaders of his time, I could not help but recall some of the words of one of our leaders, the former Secretary of State just a few years ago who talked about our nation, who talked about it as though there were certain presumptions we could always depend upon. She said, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America, we are the indispensable nation, we stand tall, we see further into the future.”
It seems to me that we have acted on that presumption: We are America, we are the good and the righteous, we see further into the future. If we have to use force, this makes it all right.
So we engage in a violent war of destruction against one of the poorest nations in the whole world. We’ve brought about suffering and death in huge numbers, even though it isn’t reported so clearly in our media.
There are hundreds of thousands of refugees. Their access to the goods that they need to survive through this winter is blocked. They are without sufficient clothing, without homes, fleeing without food. It will be a terrible suffering for them during these cold months that have begun with fierceness in that nation. Tens of thousands of them, undoubtedly, will die.
But because we are America, the indispensable nation, we presume that what we do is right.
It seems to me that we need to listen to John the Baptist who says to those presumptuous leaders of his day, “You brood of vipers, you must change. You must become humble and acknowledge your dependence on God. You must be ready to be converted and be serious in your conversion.” John goes on then to promise that there is one coming after him, one foreseen by Isaiah hundreds of years before. “The one who will come will baptize with the spirit and with fire, a fire that will refine those who are baptized with it. It will change them, purify them, and strengthen them. But it will also be a baptism of the spirit.”
Those words of John recall the prophet Ezekiel who foresaw the day when God would, as Ezekiel says, “Pour new water upon you, pour a new spirit upon you, and change your stony hearts into hearts of flesh, into human hearts that will love.”
Jesus, who John proclaimed would come to baptize in spirit and in fire, has come. We have been baptized with his spirit. We have been baptized with his fire. At the roots of our being, we have been changed. We have been converted and made over into his likeness. If we act upon what Jesus has done for us, this Jesus who baptizes with the spirit and with fire, who gives clean water, brings new life, changes hard hearts into human hearts, we will act in a totally different way than we would act otherwise.
Again, I think of John Paul II as one of the prophets of our day when it comes to understanding what John means when he says that Jesus will baptize with spirit and with fire. Those who receive that spirit and are refined by that fire will give up violence, will give up war. Because, as John Paul II said on January 1, 2000, in his feast day statement, “In a century in which we are leaving behind a humanity that has been sorely tried by an endless and horrifying sequence of wars, conflicts, genocides and ethnic cleansings that have caused unspeakable suffering, millions and millions of victims, families and countries destroyed, and an ocean of refugees, misery, hunger and disease, underdevelopment and the loss immense resources. . .” And John Paul concludes those powerful words by saying, “War is a defeat for humanity”.
War is a defeat for humanity. War is always a failure because it brings about endless suffering, conflicts, genocide, ethnic cleansing, unspeakable suffering for millions and millions of victims, families and countries. War is a defeat. Those who have been baptized in the spirit, baptized with the baptism of Jesus which is a baptism of spirit and fire, give up war. They find a different way to bring about peace and to follow the way of Jesus which is the way of nonviolence.
Again, in that homily that Pope John Paul II spoke at the beginning of the synod, he proclaimed that Jesus is the hope of the world. “The hope of the world lies in Christ. In him the expectations of humanity find real and solid foundations. The hope of every human being comes from the cross, the sign of the victory of love over hate, of forgiveness over revenge, of truth over falsehood, of solidarity over egoism. Our task, and this is truly a prophetic task of the church today, is to proclaim this announcement of saving love to the men and women of our time, that there is a way to peace that is without war and without violence. It is the way of Jesus.”
There are many in our church who reject this. In fact, recently, I read a column by a popular columnist in the Catholic press. His words are syndicated to many Catholic papers throughout the country. It was his contention that there are moral limits to the nonviolence of Jesus. That in fact those who practice nonviolence in actuality could be causing greater evil. He suggests that, clearly, World War II was a just war and that violence had to be used in order to stop Hitler.
It’s hard for me to understand how any war could be just when over fifty million people were killed and the majority of them not combatants, but civilians. A war that brought about the deliberate bombing of cities where hundreds of thousands of innocent people were killed in the bombing of Tokyo, the bombing of Dresden, the bombing of Coventry in England.
That war was a war that was total. It was against the people, not simply a war that was army against army. And, of course, it culminated with what Pope Paul VI called the butchery of untold magnitude, the deliberate bombing of two cities. At Hiroshima, almost one hundred thousand people, a non-military target, where almost one hundred thousand innocent people were destroyed in a matter of seconds. And three days later, at Nagasaki, where tens of thousands more were killed by the dropping of the second atom bomb.
World War II was not a just war, not when you have civilians being killed in huge numbers, totally innocent people being obliterated.
That author seems to think that there was no other way that Hitler could have been stopped. But Jesus says there is another way. John Paul II described it beautifully as I said before. “It is the way of the cross, the sign of the victory of love over hate, of forgiveness over revenge, of truth over falsehood, of solidarity over egoism. Our task is to proclaim this saving love to the men and women of our time.”
If we are to be the prophets that the world needs today, people who clearly speak the word of God as made known unto us in Jesus, we must speak this word of nonviolence. We must reject the killing of innocent people, the devastation that war brings about, and the failure that it always is and turn to the way of Jesus. When we have done that, then we will be able to experience the reign of God immediately in our own hearts which brings peace and joy in our relationships with one another.
Most importantly, as war is rejected as the failure that it always is and the way of Jesus embraced, we will begin to experience the reign of God in our land. Then, that beautiful vision of Isaiah will be fulfilled. There will be peace and harmony in all of nature. The wolf will lie down with the lamb, the leopard will rest beside the kid, the calf and the lion cub will feed together, and a little child will lead them. Befriending each other, the cow and the bear will see their young ones lie down together by the cobra’s den, the infant will play, and the child will put his hand into the viper’s den. No one will harm or destroy over my holy mountain. The earth will be filled with the knowledge of God and of God’s ways of peace.
My hope is that as we reflect deeply on the prophets who speak to us today that we could commit ourselves to becoming truly prophetic, to reject war as the failure that it always is, and to embrace the transforming love of Jesus, the unlimited love that he demonstrated as he forgave his enemies, loved those who hurt him, returned good for evil, and showed the way to bring peace into our world. When you and I commit ourselves to this, then indeed the reign of God will be at hand.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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