Mark 1:1-8, Second Sunday of Advent
The following stories were told by friends directly involved in the situations I’m about to share with you. So they’re not fake news. A very devout woman ran frantically to a priest-friend of mine one day. She was coming from a troubling confession with another priest. After several years of soul-searching, she finally came to terms with her life and decided to come back to God. So, she finally confessed the abortion she committed as a teenager. The priest’s penance? “Go to the orphanage an adopt a baby to pay for the life you killed.” Thankfully, my friend is a canon lawyer. So, he assured her that the penance was invalid because it was uncanonical and unfair. But can you imagine?
A very kind friend came crying to me a few years ago. The priests had just expelled her daughter from school when they found out that my friend was a single parent. Her daughter was just about to graduate from high school, so she pleaded for the child to just finish the year. “No.” First priority of the school, she was told, was moral rectitude of students and of parents. “Is it my daughter’s fault that I’m a single parent, Arnel? Am I immoral because my husband left us for another woman?”
Some of my former students told me of an experience in a mortuary where they sang for a wake mass. After singing the “Holy, Holy”, they noticed that the priest didn’t proceed with the consecration. He just stood there, glowering at the people. After a few moments of tense, awkward silence, he said testily: “What should Catholics do after the Holy, Holy?” Silence. Then the people started to fumble with the chairs in the small, crowded place, and began to try to kneel; whereupon the priest suddenly yelled, “KNEEL!”
A friend of mine was once asked by her friend to come to her community for mass; I guess, in view of getting my friend interested to be a member. As the mass went on, my friend crossed her legs very quietly, very discreetly. Then her friend leaned over to her and said, “Hey, hey, we don’t cross our legs during mass. It’s a rule.”
To “make straight the way of the Lord” is how John the Baptist describes his mission. He quotes Isaiah who said, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the wasteland a highway for God. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low; the rugged land made plain, the rough country a broad valley.” Whenever I hear those words, I imagine John powering up a huge bulldozer. And at full throttle, he rams his way against man-made rocks and mounds, man-made hills and mountains, anything that complicates the way towards God. And in my crazy Jesuit head, John’s bulldozer carves a clean, broad, and straight highway right up to God. Then in my imagination, John and God agree to call it, “the Jesus Avenue”!
Jewish religious authorities back in the day thought that they were setting people on the straight path to God. But in fact, they were piling rule upon rule, law upon law, ritual upon ritual. They had people believe that only by jumping through many hoops could you earn God’s ear—hoops set on fire for moral and spiritual and sexual and liturgical purification. Many of us priests and Catholics just love doing the same thing. We’ve made it more and more difficult for people to feel that God is close because we have detailed more roadblocks and checkpoints and barbed-wire fences barricading God away. Before some priests give you the satisfaction to think that you and God are okay, we tell you to earn God’s love first by being impeccable. Otherwise, you don’t win any points with God. Worse, “God will punish you,” some of us love to say. And we sound so sure.
I am not saying we do away with rules of faith. But we forget that “Messiah” is a person more than propositions. We forget that “Messiah” is relationship more than ritual. We forget that “Messiah” is love more than law. Did God wait for humanity to be impeccable before sending the son to us? No. Nothing stopped God from sending the Messiah to be born, because God has always desired to be near to us. Sisters and brothers, only through proximity does God save us. Only through nearness does God redeem. But what many religious authorities have done is barricade that nearness. “You want to be saved? Well, for starters, know when to kneel and when to stand at the consecration. No crossing of legs in Church. No children of single parents allowed. No giveaway forgiveness for grave sinners. And we’re just getting started.” So, even when God has already said yes to humanity, we say, “No. Not so fast.” And you know, it worked! Many Catholics now think that the Messiah is farther from them than he actually wants to be, than he actually is.
John the Baptist may have been most unkempt and dirty-looking, but to Jesus, he was the greatest of prophets. Look how uncomplicated his ceremony at the river Jordan where he baptized the willing. Anyone could come, so long as one sincerely felt the need to be pardoned. No dress code, no civil status, no rubrical gestures, no gender restrictions. Truly, John was the “forerunner”. In his simplicity and scandalous inclusivity, he pre-figured Jesus. He previewed the kind of Messiah Jesus would be.
Sisters and brothers, even before humanity could make the first step nearer to God, the Messiah has already brought God to us. Nauuna parati ang Diyos. Deep repentance and purification are the effects of divine nearness and love, not the conditions thereof. Kung hindi unang lumapit sa atin ang Diyos para tayo’y ibigin, hindi natin maiisipang pagsisihan ang ating mga kasalanan. God loving us first makes repentance possible. And by the way, you don’t get true repentance by terrorizing sinners. True repentance happens when we sinners realize how deeply God loves us despite ourselves—then, we desire to change. God’s love always goes first; repentance and purification, only second. God bestows mercy first. Only then do we awaken to the power of divine forgiveness. God approaches us first. Then we turn around and realize he’s always been there. That’s the proper order.
But many of us, religious authorities, we’ve reversed that order. The propher order is too disturbing, even if the Messiah’s whole life has already proven it true. So, like Pharisees, we reversed the order. It’s what you do first that will earn you God’s love. Baliktad na. In the meantime, we’ve dug valleys, heightened mountains and hills, and roughened planes and paths—the obstacle course to God. All that time, we thought God was on our side of the barricades…when he was actually on yours.
As the Church proceeds with Advent as well as the year of consecrated life, I beg you, sisters and brothers, to pray for us in religious life. Pray that we listen to God teach us to not get in the way between you and him, and that we allow ourselves to be taught how to get to God straightaway…and be taught that by you.