This is my homily for tomorrow - the Second Sunday of Advent
Speaking Truth to Power is a phrase that is often used to describe people who bravely stand up against injustice. It takes courage, it takes integrity to put your head above the parapet. It probably explains something behind the overwhelming reaction to the death of Nelson Mandela this week. Whenever there is a media frenzy there is a lot of nonsense spoken about someone’s life – and this week is no exception to this – however it cannot be denied that Mandela become a powerful symbol for many people. He spoke truth to power, and they tried to silence him, but in the end truth won out. He was lucky – he wasn’t silenced – he didn’t become a political martyr. Speaking truth to power is part of the job description for an Old Testament Prophet. And today in the Gospel – on the second week of our Advent Journey we meet the greatest prophet of them all, according to Jesus, John the Baptist. Unlike Nelson Mandela – we know that John was eventually silenced – beheaded by Herod. John is one of the great advent figures – bridging the gap between the NT & OT. He speaks with great authority, and that authority is recognised by the people and so he attracts great crowds.
What is his message for this advent ? I think that he is warning not to be complacent in our faith. He calls the Pharisees and the Sadducees ‘A brood of vipers’. He is not confronting the power of Herod yet – but a much more subtle power – the power of respectability and the power of a good reputation and keeping a public face. So let us examine our own faith and our own lives.
St Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises writes very clearly about the seduction of power and honour. In his meditation on the Two Standards – he talks about how the trappings of fame and honour are used by the enemy to seduce us …. to pull us away from God, so that we come to believe that we are all powerful. There is a fascinating index called ‘The Power Distance index’ which measures how much a country respects authority and values hierarchies. The higher the country is the more likely it is to be totalitarian and score high on corruption scales. In ancient times when a Roman General or a Roman Emperor used to have a victory triumph (or parade) and was receiving the adulation of the masses – a slave would stand behind him and according to Tertullian whisper in his ear “Look behind you! Remember that you are a man! Remember that you’ll die”…..the famous memento mori.
So this Advent – let us heed John’s challenge. Let us be honest about the little ways we are seduced into thinking that we are great, we are clever, lest we become complacent. Advent is a time for our hearts to become humbler – that we dust away the complacency – as we would preparing a guest room – for a special guest. But this time the room is our hearts – and for the grace of Christmas to go really deep – our hearts have to mirror that humble manger in Bethlehem.