November 30, 2011
Second Sunday of Advent [December 4, 2011]
I sometimes find it interesting and, indeed, instructive to try and identify some of the characteristics of the American psyche, those features or traits that seem so common to us all:
Our need, for instance, to make all things simple, our tendency to want answers to questions right now; our need to keep up with the latest in communication technology, our fascination with competition. It is this last issue I find the most interesting because it affects all of us in unique ways.
An example may make this clear. I admit to the fact that I have never been a talented athlete. I could get along in the sporting world of my younger days, of course, but when it came to the matter of choosing up sides for a softball team, I would always end up being chosen last, or if chosen, being sent to play the position of right field when balls are rarely hit!
Or again it I often wonder how the second or third string football players must feel when a game is close and there may never be an opportunity for them to play, at least in this game.
They are probably asking themselves why they went to all the trouble to get suited up. Unfortunately, like many things in life, some people get to play and others get to watch. When this happens over and over, of course, it can become a source of great disappointment or even depression. On the other hand, in such a situation one can also say to one’s self: “I know my talents, my skills and I am ready to live with them.”
Ultimately, of course, second place is never a very desirable option in any element of life. Vince Lombardi, coach of the very successful Green Bay Packers in the 60’s, was often quoted as saying that winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. That very phrase, of course, is often used as a criticism of the competitiveness of all professional sports.
Let me insist now that being first is not simply a characteristic limited to matters of the secular world, Indeed, we commonly find it throughout the history of the Jewish testament and the gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. The great Jewish prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea and others constantly complained of the “climbers” in Jewish religious society, the high priest, scribes and Pharisees who expected places of honor, polite address. They wished to be easily recognized, wearing their decorous religious clothing and symbols of distinction. All the while, of course, they were simply trying to escalate their own importance.
Jesus, in his debates with the scribes and Pharisees makes the same point: “They wait on street corners for recognition but do little to serve the needs the people in regard to justice and charity”
At this point, however, we suddenly meet the last and the greatest of the prophets; he was known not only for his biting condemnation of the religious elite (brood of vipers, polished sepulchers) he called them.
He did not limit his criticism only to the religious leaders, however. To all who came out to the Jordan River to hear this fiery preacher, he demanded an entire change of life, repentance, and a call for works of justice and kindness, concern for the poor.
We all know him, of course, not only by his penitential preaching, but also by his penitential lifestyle: camels’ hair clothing, locusts for a luncheon entrée, wild honey for dessert. He is none other than the famous John the Baptist.
What makes the Baptist unique, however, is that not only was he a relative of Jesus, but from a early age, he spoke of himself the forerunner of Jesus, the “advance man” of the Messiah; he was willing to step aside, stand back, so that the good news of the kingdom could be preached by Jesus.
So, in John the Baptist we have one of the best examples of a person who was unashamed to be considered “second best.” “He must increase, I must decrease,” he would say.
So, what should one make of all this? Several points:
First of all, we should thank God every day of our life for the giftedness of our human nature, physical, mental and spiritual.
Secondly, there is no reason for us to immediately begin comparing ourselves to someone else; each of us is distinctly unique: no two persons on this planet possess the exact same endowments; each of us is blessed and holy in his/her own unique way.
Finally, perhaps it might be a nice idea to do what athletes often do when they have finished a well-fought game. They get in line and give each other a firm hand class, a “high five” or say a word of congratulation for having won or tried hard to win. It is a simple sign as though to say: “let’s praise God for having done our best with what God gave us.” I would guess that there must be something deeply spiritual about all that. Even (or especially) John the Baptist might agree
Posted by Cindy Lentine on November 30, 2011 10:47 AM.