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Who am I and what is my mission?

December 14, 2017
Sister Eloise Rosenblatt, RSM

The first three readings for the third Sunday of Advent remind people to rejoice – to be optimistic, hopeful, forward-looking and confident in God’s goodness, intervention, nearness, healing power and restorative presence. We could use these Sunday readings more than once a year. A woman who survived the fires still raging in Southern California was featured on the news returning to her incinerated home in Ventura. Everything reduced to ashes around her, she embraced a woman neighbor who comforted her, “We have each other.” We see on TV the courage of people to start over after a disaster they didn’t deserve, that could not be prevented. There is no insurance coverage that can restore things to what they were before. The experience of disaster is a useful starting place for understanding the consolation offered to believers in the first three readings.

Kathleen Rushton, RSM, a Sister of Mercy and scripture scholar in New Zealand, provides an online commentary for today’s Gospel, sponsored by Mercy International Association. She points out the distinctive portrait of John the Baptist. In John’s Gospel, we get no mention of his appearance, his animal skin clothes, or his diet of locusts and honey as we do in the synoptics. She highlights the environmental setting of the desert, the baptist’s alliance with this mysterious empty land, alienated from cities and villages, and the fragile state of water in the Jordan. John is allied with the kind of land which is vulnerable to ecological degradation from human exploitation of natural resources.

I extend Sister Kathleen’s comments on the unique features of the Baptist. Like Jesus later in the Gospel interrogated by Pilate, John the Baptist is, early on, subjected to an investigation by the priests coming down from Jerusalem. They do not come out to the desert on a spiritual retreat, to hear John’s preaching, to be purified, to reflect on their own lives, or to seek baptism as a sign of repentance. Rather, they are temple agents, pursuing rumors that Zachary’s son has turned into a self-aggrandizing religious megalomaniac.

“Who are you?” they demand authoritatively. The confrontation challenges both his self-understanding, and the authorization for his work. He does not shrink from dialogue with religious officials. They demand an answer. They pose themselves against him, as though he is subject to their hierarchical authority. They are concerned to justify themselves and assert their superiority over him.

“Who are you so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” There seems to be both jealousy and mockery in the questions. What is the secret of John’s success in attracting crowds? Is there concern that John is creating a cult following and drawing off worshipers from making the trek up to Jerusalem? Is the Temple is losing some business by the diversion created by John’s sensational message? Is John hosting a one-man desert theatre, taking on the role of Anointed One, Messiah, Elijah or a resurrected prophet?

John calmly answers, completely free of political motive to confront, accommodate or appease the officials. He has accepted his mission, independent of “a place” in the hierarchical structure of their religious authority. Neither his identity nor his work can be de-coded by labels imposed on him by priests or officials. He is not the Anointed One, not Elijah, not the prophet. He asserts his own identity as “a voice of one crying in the desert.” He serves God’s interests, no one else’s. He seeks to make straight a way for the Lord.

I can seek John’s clarity about who I am and what my mission is.

Eloise Rosenblatt, RSM, is a Sister of Mercy, a Ph.D. theologian, and an attorney in private practice, mostly in family law. She lives in San Jose.

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