Pearl Harbor Day
Traditionally, the four weeks of Advent are said to remind us of the four thousand years that man waited between his fall from grace and the Incarnation of the promised Redeemer. While we can easily understand that these must have been very lonely years -- without the friendship of being in God's graces -- it is important to understand that God did not cut mankind off from all communication with Himself. Indeed, one of the things that is rather unique to Christianity is that God has taken a personal interest in His people and made Himself a part of their history.
If we read the pages of the Old Testament, we will see that God communicated directly with some of its major figures. Noe, Abraham, Moses, and the Prophets come to mind immediately -- certainly we will find others if we but look. In fact, we can read that God made a covenant with Abraham, that his descendants would be "multiplied as the stars of the heavens, as numerous as the sands of the seashore" ... that his descendants would "possess the gates of their enemies" ... and in his descendants" all the nations of the earth would be blessed, because Abraham had been obedient."1
And, having "sworn by Himself," God kept this promise through Abraham's descendents; through Isaac and Israel. God had, in effect, adopted a "chosen people" through which He would work out the salvation of mankind -- a people out of which He would eventually draw the human substance of the Incarnation, as His only-begotten Son became one of us for our Redemption.
For many of these centuries, these chosen people seemed to have a more or less exclusive claim on God attentions. In fact, on any number of occasions, He clearly forbade them from having contact with the outsiders whom they encountered. They were, in no way, to mix with the idolatrous influences of the pagan peoples who inhabited the lands through which they passed. On a few occasions they were even ordered to do violence against these outsiders who worshipped the demons which passed themselves off as false gods, literally "dooming" their cities and destroying everything they found.2
By the time of our Lord, we find that many of the chosen people had gotten so used to that role that they considered all of the outsiders -- the "gentiles" or the "t;nations" -- beyond the reach of God's graces, and thought of them as nothing more than "goyim" or "cattle." Most of us are a bit shocked when we read about the healing of the Canaanite woman's daughter, to hear even our Lord Himself refer to those outside of Israel as dogs who should not eat the bread of the children of the kingdom! We are all a little bit relieved at her humble answer that "even the dogs get to eat the crumbs that fall from the master's table," and to see Jesus, impressed with her great faith and humility, heal her possessed daughter.3 The point is, though, that in Jesus' time, many had come to this belief that salvation was for the children of Abraham alone.
Yet, in today's epistle, Saint Paul points out to us that even in the Old Testament, there were sure signs that God's plans went far beyond Israel:
Here Paul is quoting the Old Testament: the Book of Psalms, the Second Book of Kings, and the Prophet Isaias. Paul is telling us that through these words of the prophets (and through other words, of other prophets) God announced that salvation was not confined to a few thousand people in a small stretch of semi-desert; that salvation, ultimately, would be for all who were willing to keep His commandments. As he had promised, way back in the Book of Genesis, "all the nations of the earth would be blessed, because Abraham had been obedient" -- "all the nations of the earth."
Yet there was a need for a transition. Clearly, everyone in the world could not come to Jerusalem and worship in the one Temple of God, and it had to become known by all peoples -- including our Canaanite woman -- that God does not hold them to be "cattle" or "dogs." There had to be a transition, so that everyone "in the whole world" could have the Gospel preached to him, and everyone could know that "he who believes and is baptized shall be saved"5 -- whether he be Jew, or Greek, or Roman, or Barbarian.
The Gospel we read today speaks to the beginning of that transition. Today we encounter Saint John the Baptist for the first time this Advent. We will hear more of him before Christmas. John the Baptist is best understood if we think of him as belonging more to the Old Testament than to the New. He was the son of Zachary, a Jewish priest who offered sacrifice in the Temple at Jerusalem. John can be thought of as the last prophet of the Old Testament. John would close out the ways of the old chosen people, in order to open the books on the new chosen people. He was the one "of whom it is written [by the prophet Malachia], 'Behold I send My angel before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee.'"6 As we will see, John would be the one to prepare the way for Jesus by preaching a baptism of repentance -- a repentance that would prepare both Jew and Gentile for the Baptism of salvation.
Zachary's wife, John's mother Elizabeth also points out this transition from Old to New. Elizabeth was the cousin of the Blessed Virgin Mary, making John a blood relative of Jesus Christ, the "Root of Jesse". Ultimately we see in this family the transition from the priesthood of the Temple to the priesthood of the Immaculate Victim on the Cross; the transition from the bloody sacrifice of animals at Jerusalem to the Eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus Christ on all the Christian altars of the world, wherever Holy Mass is offered.
Let me leave you with one last thought. It is important to recognize that the concept of "God's chosen people" is still very much with us. It has expanded some, from the biological descendents of Abraham through Isaac, to "all those who believe and are baptized." But it clearly excludes all those who choose to disbelieve, even though Jesus Christ has been carefully and convincingly revealed to them: "he who does not believe shall be condemned." We are not talking here about the hypothetical Aborigine in the Australian out-back. We are talking about those right around us, who have heard of Jesus Christ, and may even have been baptized, but who have then rejected Him and ignored His call to be numbered among His chosen people.
Our duty is quite different from the chosen people of the Old Testament. They simply had to keep the Gentiles out -- they just had to keep the outsiders from contaminating Israel with the ideas of demons and false gods. Our duty, as the chosen people of the New Testament, is almost the opposite. Our duty is to demonstrate by our good example, and our active involvement in the works of God's Church -- our duty is to demonstrate the message of Advent and Christmas, that Jesus Christ has indeed come into the world for the salvation of all mankind; that individual men and women are called to be members of His chosen people, the Church, by believing all that he has revealed and by keeping His word.
Let us not lose sight of this duty. Let is be sure to keep a holy Advent, to prepare properly for the celebration of Christmas -- a celebration that makes no sense whatsoever if spend our time with snow-men, and Santa Clauses, and the other secularized symbols of that Holy day, if we forget that Christmas is the birth of our Savior and the beginning of salvation for all who believe in Him. Keep a holy Advent, for a blessed Christmas!