John the Baptist’s Desert Revival and Pope John XXIII’s Aggiornamento

Third Sunday of Advent Readings: Zep. 3: 4-18a; Is. 12: 2-6; Phil. 4: 4-7; Lk. 3: 10-18.  http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/121612.cfm

The lead article in the November 11th edition of our diocesan newspaper, Crossroads, published a sermon by the bishop of our Lexington diocese, Ronald W. Gainer. It had been given on Saturday November 3rd at the Cathedral of Christ the King in Lexington – the Saturday before the General Election. Bishop Gainer called attention to a new and “dangerous, corrosive change . . . at work in the soul of our nation.”  “In recent decades,” the bishop said, “forces are working overtime . . . to eliminate religion and God from the nation’s soul.” According to Bishop Gainer, those forces ignore the consistency of the Church’s moral teaching over the centuries – about “the sacredness of every human life.” Those teachings recognize certain acts as “intrinsically evil.” These include “abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide and embryonic stem cell research. Being against the intrinsically evil means standing up for the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman, the God-given right to freedom of religion, and against the evil of racism. There is nothing wrong with being a single-issue voter, the bishop emphasized; and abortion is the pivotal single issue for Catholics. The bishop concluded that political “candidates who refuse to oppose the evils he listed or who actively support them disqualify themselves from receiving Catholics’ support in the voting booth.”

Curiously, Bishop Gainer’s list of “intrinsic evils” did not include priests raping children. As a result, his remarks came off as out-of-touch, triumphalistic, self-serving, dishonest, and tired. We had heard it all before: “They’re wrong; we have never erred. ‘They’ are persecuting us. Only one issue is important, abortion. Vote Republican, even if that means economic disaster for the poor at home or abroad” (e.g., in the wars and drone strikes which also went unmentioned in the bishop’s remarks).

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A little over a month ago, I attended the concluding Mass at the “Call to Action Conference” (CTA) in the Grand Ballroom of the Galt House in Louisville, Kentucky. CTA is the annual meeting of progressive Catholics who are trying to follow the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. (Vatican II set an agenda of church renewal and reform when the world’s Catholic bishops met in Rome from 1962-1965.) About 1000 people were present at CTA’s concluding liturgy. It reminded me of what spirited worship is like. Our good friend, John Wright Rios was the music leader with a group he assembled of about 15 instrumentalists and singers. There were drums, guitars, piano, trumpet and dancing. Hymns were in English and in Spanish with words projected on four large flat screens. The liturgy featured women in prominent roles, including three of the five concelebrants. Sister Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the bus” fame and who had spoken at last summer’s Democratic Convention gave the homily. What she said was insightful, inspiring, funny, and challenging. It made me see what the church is missing by insisting on an all-male, highly in-bred clergy. Sister Campbell spoke of the deep-seated divisions in our country and the need for universal love even of our enemies. She addressed the spiritual poverty and hunger experienced by all of us including leaders in the church, in politics, in our schools and universities. Poverty and hunger of body and spirit was the focus of Jesus’ work as described in the gospels. The church needs more Jesus, she said, and less triumphalism and pride.

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Today’s readings are about religious revival and about the renewed recognition of God’s presence in our midst. In the first and third reading, the message is delivered by severe critics of temple worship – Zephaniah and John the Baptist. Zephaniah was a religious reformer from the seventh century BCE (just before the Babylonian Exile). He was known as the champion of “the poor of the land” (2:3; 3:12), and a fierce critic of Assyrian imperialism and the adoption of Assyrian religious ideology by Israel’s ruling elite. He accused the priests of his day of abandoning Yahweh in favor of Baal and Astarte. The outspoken Zephaniah threatened to drive out the priests and cleanse the temple by force.

Then in today’s gospel, John the Baptist picks up Zephaniah’s theme more than five hundred years later. Luke pictures John at the Jordan River – far from Jerusalem’s temple and its priesthood. John is leading a religious revival in the desert – the place of Israel’s birth long before there was any temple. Like Zephaniah, John is a layman. And his words to the religious leadership are harsh. In Luke’s verses immediately preceding today’s excerpt, he calls the crowd a “brood of vipers.” Matthew’s version is more specific. He says that curse was hurled at the Sadducees and Pharisees, the religious leadership of the day. According to John, they are snakes in the grass.

John contrasts the failed leadership of these men with God’s leadership present in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus, of course, turns out not to be a priest or rabbi either, but a workingman from Nazareth. Yet according to John, Jesus is more powerful and more worthy than John himself. As a lay leader, Jesus will bring not only the Holy Spirit, but a cleansing fire. He will separate the wheat from the chaff – what is essential from what is not – what is nourishing from what is not – the kernel of truth from its encasements. Those shells are now outdated, John says. We are about to enter a new era. Chaff, John declares, is good for nothing but burning in the hottest fire imaginable. He calls the crowds to the kernel of truth: share their surplus with the poor.

This year we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council.  It was a movement of reform and revival in the spirit of Zephaniah and John the Baptist. Pope John XXIII was the 1960s embodiment of their prophetic tradition. He summoned that meeting of the world’s bishops and used the word aggiornamento to describe the Council’s project. Aggiornamento meant updating.

Pope John’s vision was one of church revival and reform that connected Jesus with the actual lives and problems of people and the world – especially the poor. Those lives are characterized by either unemployment or overwork, by low wages, poverty, over-priced healthcare, misogyny, racism, inaccessible education, scant prospect of retirement, and by the train of evils introduced by climate change, inflated “defense” budgets and wars largely initiated by the United States.

Today’s readings suggest that serving the world (the church’s mission as identified by Vatican II) involves addressing those problems – the kernel instead of the chaff. Doing so leaves no place for triumphalism, infallibility or wallowing in self-pity about how the church is being mistreated and misunderstood by a hostile world. It does however mean trying to address the very good reasons the world might have for being hostile.

Neither is service of the world advanced by focusing on matters (as important as they might be) far removed from daily life. Identifying Christianity with opposition to stem cell research, gay marriage, contraception, and revoking Roe v. Wade is old and tired. It’s a form of denial that distracts from Jesus’ essential concern for the poor and their problems. It is to mistake chaff for wheat. So is silence about the church’s checkered past, its fallibility, errors, crimes against humanity, and scandals as prominent as priests’ rape of children.

“Call to Action”  attempts to recapture the spirit of Vatican II, separate wheat from chaff, and address the “signs of the times.” The “prayers of the faithful” following Sr. Campbell’s homily addressed war, poverty, climate change and the other problems I’ve just mentioned. The response of the people was not the usual “Lord, hear our prayer,” but “Aggiornamento!”

Let that be our response to Zephaniah, John the Baptist, and Jesus today. Aggiornamento!

What might aggiornamento mean for us today?

(Discussion follows)

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

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