2004—Second Sunday of Advent—A
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
Wow! That's a lot of people moving! If we are to believe Matthew there was a general exodus out of the city of Jerusalem and from towns and villages in the region. What was so compelling about the preaching of John the Baptist that people would make the trek out to the Jordan from Jerusalem? Can you see all the people streaming from Jerusalem toward the Jordan? Ordinarily people would be streaming toward Jerusalem toward the Temple, God's dwelling place. That was the authentic place for the mikvah the ritual bath. But here they are streaming in the opposite direction, away from Jerusalem. What's going on? What made people so anxious and eager to experience the baptism of John in the Jordan? What made people so anxious and eager to confess their sins? Even Jesus is one of the many who will come to the banks of the Jordan to be baptized.
In Matthew's gospel I imagine we are dealing with hyperbole, exaggeration. It is hard to imagine that the whole city of Jerusalem, including its religious leaders would make the long, hot, sweaty trek to see and hear a "wild man". But Matthew is trying to tell his listeners that something earth shattering, cataclysmic, apocalyptic is about to happen. God's coming in a way never before imaginable. In Jesus, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire, the "end times" are about to begin. Powerful preaching! Stunning symbol of going down in the water and "fessing" up to one's sins.
This question of what was so compelling about the experience of John's baptism at the Jordan has been on my mind this week for a number of reasons. First, we are celebrating this morning the "Rite of Acceptance" for those who are seeking to be initiated into the Christian Community. Some of you are seeking baptism like those people who streamed to the Jordan. Some of you are completing your initiation with the gift of the Spirit in Confirmation and the gift of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. This community is always grateful for your seeking and always fascinated by your journey. What is it that draws you here? What is so compelling in your life that you are anxious and eager to follow Christ in this Catholic Christian community? I know some of you have come because of the special people in your lives who are committed Catholics. Others who have been on a personal spiritual journey which have led you here.
And what about all of you who come streaming to this Church on a Sunday morning? What is so compelling about this experience of Eucharist that draws you here? I have been struggling with this question for some time now in the midst of all we hear about church attendance or non-attendance these days. What is it that makes you anxious and eager to encounter the mystery of God in Word and at the Eucharistic table?
This past Wednesday, World Aids day I had a glimmer of an answer. Every December 1st, World Aids Day, the cyclorama in the South end is turned into a visual meditation on the impact that the HIV virus has had on the lives of so many throughout the world. IT is called the Medicine Wheel. During the day and night there are performances, prayers and opportunities for people to remember the loves and the loss of lives as well as hope and pray for the future. It has been the custom of our parish to celebrate Eucharist in the midst of the Medicine Wheel. This year I was the celebrant. How can I find words to describe the experience? 2o of us parishioners of St Ignatius and members of the Jesuit Urban Center gathered around a stone table listening to the prophet Isaiah speaking Advent words of hope and consolation and Matthew speaking of Jesus moved to pity with the suffering of his people. We could barely hear the word proclaimed because all around us in the Cyclorama so much else was happening. At least a hundred people were speaking, singing, moving, laughing, and crying. And here in the midst of all this human activity, here in the midst of all the symbols of pain and loss of life from Aids, we were consecrating bread and wine in memory of Jesus. Holding up the sacred bread, saying "this is my body given up for you". Not just for you around the table but this is bread for the world. This is my blood poured out for you and for all. Not just for you around the table but this is the cup of life for all.
I have rarely experienced the power and truth of the Eucharist in such a way. Just think of it. As we gather today here in this place, people are waking and sleeping, loving and hating, working for peace and losing their lives in wars. All of what is human, the good and the bad, the beautiful and the horrific is happening around us. This bread and wine, this body and blood of Christ given in sacrificial love is not just for our personal spiritual nourishment. It is so much more. It is the soul shaking, mind-blowing experience of divine love breaking into our world again and again and again.