|'Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the trees'|
In this week’s readings the Advent theme of judgment rises to a crescendo. In the Old Testament lesson, the prophet Zephaniah tells Israel to rejoice because God has ended the terrible catalogue of acts of judgment that have befallen his Chosen People. The defeat of their enemies is at hand because God Himself will come amongst them. A Canticle from Isaiah (in the place of the usual Psalm) repeats the theme and tells the inhabitants of Zion to ‘Cry aloud, ring out your joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel’. The brief lesson from Philippians provides a New Testament echo – rejoice because ‘the Lord is near’.
The Gospel, however, has a rather different tone. This is John the Baptist at his sternest. No mention of rejoicing, just a dreadful warning. John addresses those same inhabitants of Zion, as ‘You brood of vipers’ – no better than snakes squirming across the sand to avoid the flames that will destroy them. No good saying, ‘But we are the Chosen People!’ This gives neither right nor privilege, because God could just as easily choose stones to be his servants. True repentance, John declares, will indeed make a difference, but only if it includes giving up all the little conventional sins that everyone expects householders, soldiers and tax collectors to commit.
|The Mystical Nativity - Botticelli (1500)|
Will they then see the Messiah, the mighty warrior whose coming Zephaniah and Isaiah herald? Could the ferocious John be Him? No, someone even more powerful is coming. This true Messiah will come amongst us in order to separate the wheat and burn the chaff ‘with unquenchable fire’.
Somewhat strangely, the passage ends by saying that John proclaimed ‘good news’ to the people. How could exhortations of such ferocity be good news? Here we get the first inkling that true ‘salvation’ will be quite different to what the Israelites supposed would happen, and to the things that we in our time might long for. The ‘warrior in your midst who gives victory’ will be born in a stable, not a palace, and die on a Cross. That revelation truly was, and is, a mystery, the mystery of the Incarnation that millions of Christians across the world are about to celebrate.