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Third Sunday in Advent

Readings: Is. 61:1–4, 8–11, Ps. 126, 1 Th. 5:12–28 & Jn. 1:6–8, 19–28

Who am I? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Perhaps the greatest struggle we face in our lives is the struggle with the sense of our own identity.

I was reminded recently of something written by Thomas Merton, which was titled ‘Love is our Measure’. Merton wrote: “The measure of our identity, of our being (the two are the same), is the amount of our love for God. The more we love earthly things, reputation, importance, pleasures, ease, and success, the less we love God. Our identity is dissipated among things that have no value, and we are drowned and die in trying to live in the material things we would like to possess, or in the projects we would like to complete to objectify the work of our own wills. Then, when we come to die, we find we have squandered all our love (that is, our being) on things of nothingness, and that we are nothing, we are death.” 

Very sobering words. But what really struck me was the opening phrase: “The measure of our identity, of our being (the two are the same), is the amount of our love for God.” I’d never stopped to think of identity and being as one and the same thing. But when I think about it now, it makes perfect sense. 

When I ask myself the question, “Who am I?”, the simple answer is, “I am me. I am who I am.” I could answer by saying that I am a priest, a husband, a father, a son, et cetera, but they are answers to a different question. They describe “what I am”, not “who I am”.

Then I think about what Merton said regarding the measure of our identity being the amount of our love for God. He contrasted that with a love for earthly things: reputation, importance, pleasures, ease, and success, which are all things I’m sure we can easily recognise in our society as measures of someone’s identity. Yet Merton would argue that in measuring our identity in terms of earthly things, we are watering down our identity, dissolving it among things that have no real value.

Our readings today have a lot to do with identity. In our first reading, from the Book of Isaiah, we hear an unidentified person saying, ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.’ (Is. 61:1) Who is this self-proclaimed messenger from God? We are not told. Whoever they were, they were talking to the exiles in Babylon who were suddenly free to return home and rebuild Jerusalem following the defeat of the Babylonian Empire by King Cyrus of Persia. 

This person was telling the exiles that a spiritually healthy community, would be a community dwelling in a secure and productive land, and this obviously involved bricks and mortar. But they were also saying that always what is built in obedience to God goes beyond bricks and mortar. Placing God’s justice and mercy at the heart of the project of rebuilding Jerusalem, would enable the community there to reach the highest purpose possible for any human group, which is “to display [God’s] glory” (v. 3).

If we look at today’s passage in the context of Advent, we could say that the speaker in this passage is Christ, and ‘we’ are the audience he is addressing. Reading the passage in this way, means that rather than hearing the words of the speaker as exaltation of a God who serves our needs, we should hear them as divine command to go out and bring healing to our broken world. Or, to put it in Advent language, we are called to be Christ to others. 

In a way, this is what Paul was saying to the church at Thessalonica. Today’s passage from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians, is actually the ending of the letter. It contains a series of admonitions designed to stop the church community from becoming lazy or passive. Paul ends the letter with action words that are God-centred. Rejoicing, praying, giving thanks, discerning, and testing–these activities leave no room for idleness (1 Thessalonians 5:14) nor do they allow the church to forget the source of their good news.

The church today reads these final admonitions as we too await Christ’s return. Paul is insistent that Christ will come again when he writes, ‘May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ’. (1 Thessalonians 5:23). Death, pain, suffering, and turmoil do not get the last word. We await a Saviour who has conquered Death. This period of waiting, though, is not a time to twiddle our thumbs. We are called to be active. Pray and rejoice that God has not abandoned us to evil. Model what is good and peaceful. Allow God’s Spirit to shine in our midst for the God of peace is really at work among us.

We are to bear witness to Christ in the world, just as John the Baptist did in today’s passage from the gospel of John. John gave his testimony to the Jewish religious leaders concerning Jesus. His witness gave credibility to Jesus’ actions and activities. In John’s gospel, witness is the beginning of faith – bearing witness to the Word, Jesus Christ, is the foundation for the emergence of human faith in God.

In order to bear witness to Jesus though, John has to understand the measure of his own identity. He has to know who he is not, who he is, and what he does. When the Jewish religious leaders ask John three times, “Who are you?”, he answers truthfully, but differently, each time. Trying to be clear about his identity, John answers in three ways. First he clarifies who he isn’t when he says, “I am not the Messiah. I am not Elijah. I am not the prophet.” Then he tells them what his vocation is: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”, which of course is a quote from the Book of Isaiah. His vocation is to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. And finally he acknowledges what the limitations of his vocation are: “I baptise with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Perhaps we can reflect on how John bore witness to Jesus to help us answer the question, “Who am I?”, and  to claim our identity within our own vocation to bear witness to Jesus.

Once we have claimed our identity within our vocation, we can then begin to measure our identity, by understanding the amount of our love for God. And being confident in that knowledge, we can truly bear witness to Christ in our own lives.

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