In Christmas crackers, once one have been able to pull and get it to break, one normally finds a plastic toy or trinket and a small piece of paper that says “Did you know that …”. Today I would like to do a short quiz on pandas. So did you know that …
- Pandas have 6 fingers on each paw
- That pandas use these paws to eat bamboo for up to 16 hours a day
- That there are less than 2000 pandas alive in the world today
Did you also know that pandas have the digestive system of a carnivore? They belong to the order Carnivoraand are true bears except that they are herbivores. Now you are probably wondering why I am telling you about bears in a homily!
In today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah we read of a future time of great peace, a peace that will extend beyond humanity to even bring peace between animals. In particular Isaiah foretold:
The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
I am sure that many readers of Isaiah have has thought that this was a crazy prophesy – how could an animal change from being a carnivore to a herbivore? In a mysterious way God has been at work bringing about the promised peace in the animal kingdom for millions of years. Isaiah goes on to say that the animals would be led by a small child, and this foretold peace come about in the stable of Bethlehem.
Chapter of 11 of Isaiah which we read today is a message of consolation – this forms part of the second portion of the book of Isaiah. However, the opening chapters of the Book of Isaiah are very different – they form a call to repent, to return to God to avoid impending punishment. Unfortunately the leadership of Israel do not heed the prophets cry, and they are defeated and enslaved by the Babylonian empire, under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar. The prophet Isaiah, inspired by God, then predicts a future era of peace and salvation from God.
In today’s Gospel, from Matthew 3, the voice of John the Baptist cries out again:
Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him
In the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi said that Elijah would return to herald the promised messiah. St Matthew’s description of John the Baptist that hi clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist, point to him being the mysterious return of Elijah as this was the attire that Elijah wore.
John the Baptist in his words also prepares the way for the Lord by crying out “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” – this is the exact message that our Lord employs when starting his public ministry.
So why then does John react so strongly and negatively to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing? These groups were the main opponents of Jesus and would have been the main obstacle to the early church. In all likelihood, they were seeking to use the ritual that John was offering, that of baptism in the Jordan River, to gain salvation without repenting and changing their evil ways. As such, John issues them with a threefold warning:
- Empty ritual will not save them
- Simply belonging by biological descent to the people of Abraham will not save them
- And that unless they bear good fruit they will face eternal punishment from God.
In the Bible, repentance is understood to be a willingness to turn one life around in the sense of a complete reorientation, of actions, attitudes and priorities.
Let us return to the panda for a moment. Scientists wanted to know why pandas changed their eating habits. Initially it was thought that perhaps due to the abundance of bamboo they simply opted for the easy option of eating bamboo instead of hunting for prey. However, genetic testing has shown that about 4 million years ago a random mutation occurred that resulted in their Umami gene, the gene at allows carnivores to taste savoury things, became deactivated. This internal change led to a drastic external change in behaviour.
Our discipleship of Jesus also requires an internal change – a decisive decision to follow Jesus in his person and teachings. This cannot be an unconscious change, as was the case for the panda, but it has to be a firm decision to think and act in ways that align with God’s teachings.
So as you and I again hear John the Baptist’s cry to make the paths straight for the Lord, what can we do to heed this call? The threefold warning given to the Pharisees and Sadducees can provide us with an important reflection:
- How invested are our hearts and minds when we participate in ritual? Do we actively participate in prayer, opening our hearts and minds to God? As abundant as bamboo is for pandas, God’s grace is superabundant for those who repent and seek God’s forgiveness and help in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
- Do we presume that as we were baptised Catholics or attend from time to time that this will save us? Mere belonging by descent is not enough – we must be active members of the Body of Christ.
- If we are active members of the Body of Christ then we must bear good fruit. What is that good fruit that God wants of us? Today’s second reading asks us to examine the quality of our relationships – with God, with each other and with ourselves. Are we people who spend regular periods of time in prayer? Are we generous in sacrificing for others or do we need to repent of selfishness?
As we seek to again prepare our hearts to celebrate the birth of our Saviour this Christmas the 2nd reading and the Gospel also give us great hope. John foretold that Jesus would give to his disciples the Holy Spirit, the very presence of God living in us to change us and to help us. May our prayer this Advent be that the Lord would set us afire with the Holy Spirit, enabling us to love what He loves and to live in the peace that he offers to all.