At the time of working on this reflection, India was celebrating its only medals at the Rio Olympics, a bronze and a silver won by the 23 year-old wrestler Sakshi Malik and the 21-year old shuttler, P.V. Sindhu. A third contestant, the 23 year old gymnast, Dipa Karmarkar, who missed a medal by a whisker, held her country spellbound as she did the “vault of death” that is rarely attempted. One headline which I particularly liked was “They fought like girls”.
To understand their real triumph you have to view it against the background of their lives – being born girls in ‘gender critical’ States where baby girls are literally killed before they can dream, forget about allowing them to follow their dreams. They took up their sport against the patriarchal and medieval protests of the entire village that considered such sport ‘not meant for girls’. They faced flak for the figure hugging, skin revealing outfits that were a must for their sport. And single girls traveling outside the village, especially in the company of men, was just not done. These women surmounted the odds of no funding, homemade, makeshift equipment, and no guidance. They made it through sheer grit, passion and faith. They brought pride to a nation that had almost given up hope of victory.
We are called to participate in God’s redemptive plan
In the gospel of the second Sunday in Advent we meet a character cast in the same mould as these plucky Indian women – John, the Baptist. Like them he is single-minded in his purpose. His mission is his life, and he is willing to give his life for it. A maverick, he too refuses to conform. He emerges from the wilderness clothed in camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. His food is simple, neither bread nor wine (Mt 11:18; Lk 7:33), only locusts and wild honey (Mt 3:4; Mark 1:6). His very lifestyle in its austerity proclaims the counter-culture he has come to announce, one that places little value on the preoccupations of the world.
While still in his mother’s womb John was chosen to be God’s ambassador and he carries this consciousness of being set apart into adulthood, strengthening it with self-discipline and penance. Like those Olympic champions he prepares vigorously for that great moment when he will make an appearance on life’s stage, when all will be watching. For 400 years there had been no prophet in the Jewish world and now he is here proclaiming the advent of one who will bring justice for the poor, liberation for the afflicted and vengeance to the oppressor (Is 11:3-5). He is the forerunner of the Christ who St. Paul tells us in the second reading, brings hope and salvation to all, Jews and Gentiles alike.
We are called to be open to God’s grace and action
John’s desert experience is central to his mission. If he is to be a participant in God’s redemptive plan he must open himself up to God’s grace and action. In the stillness of his heart he must hear God’s voice. And so he goes into the wilderness, away from all distraction, to meet his God. How many of us do this? Go into the wilderness; find spaces of silence in our day, away from thoughts, desires, ambitions, plans? Do we think about emptying ourselves so that we may be filled with the Spirit? Do we make time to look within and feel the pull of the heart? Sadly, such quietness is not a priority for most of us. It is not even on our ‘to-do’ list. We are so busy with family, home, work, or connecting with friends on social media. “Work is prayer”, we console ourselves. Even our parishes are frequently caught up in this whirlwind of activity. Pope John Paul II repeatedly stressed that Catholic parishes are meant to be "genuine schools of prayer," where the "art" of prayer is taught and learned; but how many of our parishes see this as a key point in pastoral planning?
The gospels tell us that Jesus often took off on his own to pray, away from his disciples, away from the multitudes that constantly followed him. He goes up into the mountains to pray (Mt. 14:22-23; Mk 6:45-46; Jn 6:15) sometimes staying there all night (Lk 6:12-13); he wakes up before the break of dawn to pray (Mk 1:35); he retreats into the wilderness to pray (Lk 4:42; Lk 5:16). Watching him pray his disciples are moved to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray as John also taught his disciples” (Lk 11:1). Reflecting on this we are probably tempted to say, “Jesus was God and John was special so it was easy for them. But life is so different today”. So let’s take a woman of our times, Mother Teresa of Kolkata, who was recently canonized. When asked about the success of her work she confessed, “I don't think that I could do this work for even one week if I didn't have four hours of prayer every day”. And what was this prayer like? When an interviewer asked her, “When you pray, what do you say to God?” she answered simply, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.” When he persisted, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?” she replied, “God also doesn’t talk. God also simply listens.” Four hours every day. Besides tending to the dying and unwanted she was directing her congregation and establishing foundations across the world. By the time she died in 1997 she had 610 foundations in 123 countries. She obviously was a very busy woman. Yet, she made the time to enter into the calmness of the Spirit.
This plugging in to the Spirit is part of John’s life too. In the solitude of the desert the Spirit of the Lord rests upon him enabling him to set forth as the one who goes before, to prepare for the one who is to come. People come from “Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan” to listen to him and be baptised by him. They are moved to acknowledge their sins. All because they experience the power of God in him. His is the voice crying in the wilderness, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah: “Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight (so that) all flesh will see the salvation of God”. (Luke 3:4-6).
What does it mean to make his paths straight?
We are called to destroy the enemy within
When John is baptizing his people, Jesus is already there in their midst. But the Jews do not see him. They do not recognize him because he does not fit their idea of a Messiah. Initially they longed for a deliverer, one who would free them from their oppressors. But with time they also wanted an avenger, one who would destroy their enemies. But the Messiah who comes is looking to liberate the Jews from another kind of enemy, one that is within. He has come to destroy their hypocrisy, greed, selfishness, and obsession with cultic purity and lineage, and his forerunner, John the Baptist prepares the way by pointing out the ravines into which they have fallen, and the hills and mountains that block their path to salvation. He prepares the way by drawing attention to the obstacles to God’s arrival.
We are called to change direction
John comes preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He gets people to start reflecting on their lives and their relationship with God. The first-century historian Josephus writes, “John enjoined upon the Jews first to cultivate virtue and to put into practice righteousness toward one another, and piety toward God, and then to come to his baptism, for thus only would the baptism be acceptable to God”. So the repentance John asks for is more than just remorse and regret. The repentance he asks for is metanoia, the Greek term for “a change of mind”. It involves first of all recognition of our wicked ways and unrighteous thoughts (Is 55:7) whether through commission or omission (James 4:17; Luke 10:30-37; Mt 25:31-46). This admission of wrongdoing must be accompanied by an acknowledgement of personal responsibility and a desire for cleansing the heart and restoring right relationship with God. It is only when all these elements are present in the inward response that an outward change of behavior is possible. Only then can we change direction by “turning away” from what is wrong and “turning to” God.
We are called to set the world in the right direction
Interestingly, the Pharisees and Saducees too flocked to John’s baptism in large numbers. They were the religious elite of Jerusalem. They followed all the rules, never skipped worship, performed the rituals meticulously and came from families that went all the way back to Abraham. Their presence should have made John happy; by coming to him they were in a way, giving him credibility. Instead John sees right through them and calls them a “brood of vipers”.
He is not taken up by their outward religiosity. He knows that they are not there to repent but to take an easy way out. They are there because their rabbis had foretold that the Messiah’s advent would be preceded by a period of great suffering, generally known as the “woes of Messiah”, and they thought John’s baptism was an easy ritual which would protect them from the “woes”. But John immediately calls them out. “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (Mt. 3:8) he challenges them. And lest they think that having Abraham as their father was enough to presume relationship with God, he quickly disillusions them. “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones”, he tells them. It is a reminder for us too who are complacent in our baptism, believing that it is our passport to heaven. No amount of pious devotions and reception of the sacraments can substitute the need for the true metanoia which will bring about God’s Reign of righteousness and right relationship. Like John and Jesus, we too must be symbols of God’s initiative taking shape in the world. Like them we must challenge unjust structures and practices that promote discrimination on the basis of race, class, caste, religion and gender, beginning in our own homes and social circles. We must begin to question the world economy that Pope Francis points out perpetuates a fundamental terrorism against all humanity by placing at its center the god of money and not the person. We must feel moved to open the doors of mercy to those who come to us in need – the poor, the unwanted, the broken, the migrant, the refugee; and we must be ever conscious of the need to heal and safeguard Mother Earth against greed and selfish exploitation. As we change direction in our lives its impact must be evident in the way we view the world and respond to its concerns. We must strive too to set the world in the right direction.
We are called to point a way to God
The season of Advent provides us with an opportunity for new beginnings. It blends a penitential theme with one of prayerful, spiritual preparation for the second and final coming of our Lord, and one of joyful anticipation of the celebration of the Incarnation and Christ’s birth. It is a time for looking within and asking: What must we change to make a way for the Lord in our hearts and in our world? But it is also a season of looking forward, of moving towards something greater. In the Gospel reading John directs us to Jesus as the one who is mightier than him, the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire and bring new life not just to the Jews, but to all who call on His name. Today’s gospel invites us to stand like John, passionate and steadfast in the face of criticism, temptation, ridicule and even persecution, and point a way to Jesus Christ through the choices we make, the values we live by, the causes we uphold.
The fruit of such repentance and right living is reconciliation. In the first reading the prophet Isaiah tells us about a new world order that will be ushered in by the Messiah, one that would be characterized by justice, faithfulness and kinship across all boundaries. In this reconciled world there will be no enmity - predators will live in peace with their prey and their young will browse together; there will be no discrimination - the strong and the weak will share the same meal; and there will be no fear – the vulnerable will be protected, for “the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.” (Is 11:9). This is the promise of Advent.
 Sakshi Malik comes from a village where the child sex ratio is just 800 females for every 1,000 males, lower even than the ratio for the ‘gender critical’ State of Haryana.
 'Ant.,' 18:05, 2 cited in http://biblehub.com/commentaries/pulpit/luke/3.htm
Astrid Lobo Gajiwala
Astrid Lobo Gajiwala has a PhD in Medicine, and Post Graduate Diplomas in Tissue Banking, Bioethics, and Theology. She heads India’s first Tissue Bank which she established in 1988, and served as India’s Project Co-ordinator for Tissue Banking for the IAEA. She was the first woman President of the Asia Pacific Association of Tissue Banking.
She is a founding member of Satyashodhak a Mumbai based feminist collective that, since its inception in 1984, has contributed significantly to the empowerment of women in the Indian Church: member of the Indian Theological Association (ITA) at a time when the majority of theologians were men, and currently serves on their Executive Committee; founding member of the Indian Women’s Theological Forum (IWTF) and former Assistant Co-ordinator for Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA), which bring together women theologians from academia and the grass roots; member of the ecumenical Indian Christian Women’s Movement (ICWM); and former Secretary of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Council and Vice President of the Parish Pastoral Council.
Recipient of two awards for journalism, she contributed to the anthology: Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table that was distributed to the bishops at the 2015 Synod on the Family, and Elizabeth Johnson’s anthology: The Strength of Her Witness. Earlier she was invited by Voices of Faith as a panelist at a celebration of International Women’s Day in the Vatican.
She conducts sessions on gender sensitization, feminist theology and inter-religious marriage, for seminarians and parish groups and is a resource person for the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conference (FABC), the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) and the Bombay Archdiocesan Women’s Commission. She played a key role in the institution of the CBCI Commission for Women (1992), of which she continues to be a core team member, and the drafting of the bishops’ “Gender Policy of the Church of India” (2010) which she presented at the “Women’s Ordination Worldwide” Conference (2015).
Currently she is on the advisory bodies of a few international reform groups as well as the Jesuit Conference of South Asia (JCSA) and the Jesuit Faculties’ Forum for South Asia (JFFSA) engaged in reorientation of the Assistancy.