John the Baptist is at the heart of the Sunday gospels, as the second and third Sunday focus on the Baptizer and his preaching. As we know, John preaches in the desert. It is an interesting choice of location. If he had a message to communicate, why would he preach it from a deserted place? Wouldn’t it be best to communicate in the city, in busy places?
John preaches from the desert because he is protesting. He is telling the people of Israel that there is a need to repossess the Promised Land, that the House of Israel has not fulfilled their side of the Covenant with God. Thus, he invites the people to start again, to leave the land of the Covenant and start again through baptism—the reference to his ministry along the Jordan River, the Eastern border of the Promised Land.
Despite being in the desert, his message resonates with a people in expectation, who were thirsty for a new hope. They hear his message and then they ask, “What should we do?” Isn’t that a question we all have? Sunday after Sunday, year after year of coming to church… we wonder, like the people approaching John, what should we do? What is next? Especially now, in Advent, when we get the very clear message that we are preparing for the coming of the child Jesus… But how?
John has an answer for everybody. The gospel narrates how three different groups of people approach him, and to each group he gives an answer that is ethical, an action: those who have are asked to give what they do not need; to the tax collectors, he tells them not to defraud people; to the (Roman) soldiers, he tells them not to abuse their power.
We wonder as well about what should we do, and we do not need to reinvent the wheel to find an answer. As many of you know, the Holy Father has declared a Jubilee Year of Mercy. During this year we will reflect and receive God’s mercy, but we are also reminded that, as with many things in Church, it is not only about receiving mercy but also learning to give mercy, to become merciful as the Father is merciful (Luke 6:36.) On this, in 1980, Saint John Paul II wrote, “Christ taught that we do not only receive and experience the mercy of God, but that we are also called to practice mercy towards others.”
We become merciful like the Father by following a very sound and solid Catholic piece of moral theology: the works of Mercy. We shake the dust off our memory to remember that there were two types, the spiritual works of mercy, and the corporal works of mercy. We can quickly review the list—spiritual works of mercy: to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offences willingly, to comfort the afflicted, to pray for the living and the dead. And the corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick, to visit the imprisoned, to bury the dead.
Some may need a bit of a translation, for instance, the one of giving a drink to the thirsty may imply more than going out to find someone actually thirsty. But the list of the works of mercy is a great way to examine our lives, and our faith communities (for instance, does our parish have any prison ministry?) For the time being, perhaps we could choose one work of mercy (or one spiritual and one corporal) and “do” them as a way to prepare for Christmas.
What should we do? Practice mercy. Do we?