The following is the text of a homily delivered by Fr. Daniel P. Horan, OFM in Boston, MA, on the Second Sunday of Advent (2015).
It may be “beginning to look a lot like Christmas” around town, but it sure as hell isn’t beginning to feel that way. On the one hand, it is extraordinarily difficult to reflect on the season of Advent and the coming of the Lord, the joy of the carols and decorations, and the celebration of family and friends when nearly every day we are confronted with the disgusting realities of violence in our society. Violence, it should be noted, that is the direct result of our collective inaction, our societal indifference, and the ongoing compromise of our political system by money, greed, and the singular desire to be reelected. It’s hard to focus on the season of “hopeful waiting” when our present moment seems continually shattered by the absence of any real interest in serving the common good over protecting the idol of “individual liberties.” The church teaches that the promotion and protection of the common good is civil government’s primary purpose, a teaching that has been reiterated frequently in Pope Francis’s writings and addresses.
And yet, on the other hand, this Second Sunday of Advent presents us with difficult truths and relevant challenges from sacred scripture that speak to us today, I believe, as much as they spoke to the original audiences of their time. In a way that only the Holy Spirit can provide, this Sunday’s reading offer us insights into God’s wisdom for us in our own time.
For instance, take our First Reading from the book of Baruch (5:1-9). Baruch was a friend of and scribe to the prophet Jeremiah, who lived about six centuries before the birth of Christ. Like Jeremiah, Baruch is calling out the sinfulness of Israel, which has abandoned the Covenant with God and stopped following the Law prescribed in the Torah. The interpretation of the time was that the experience of displacement, of exile, was the direct result of the collective community having lost its way.
Baruch preaches a word of admonition and exhortation, of chastisement and hope. But what’s interesting about this particular text, which comes at the very end of the book, is that the final word is not aimed at any particular king or individual politician. Instead, the message is directed at the whole society, all of Israel.
Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever:
wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,
bear on your head the mitre
that displays the glory of the eternal name.
For God will show all the earth your splendor:
you will be named by God forever
the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship.
The call is for the society to let go of its previous ways, to surrender the mantle of “mourning and misery,” of having it their way, in order to put on the way of God, the life of the Covenant, the structures of the Law.
Further along, Baruch says that in order to return from exile, to reunite as God’s chosen people, concrete action has to be done. This is illustrated with the echoing of imagery found also in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.”
When this is done, the people have changed their ways and returned to God, then, “God will lead Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company.”
This is not simply an individual call, but a corporate call, a communal call, a societal call. Like Baruch’s ancient audience, we too are called by God to return to way of God instead of dwelling on our own ways and ourselves; to put away our own violence and fear and need for power and control in order to put the common good first; to live in such a way as to reflect our call to be Christians actually striving to live after the example of Jesus Christ, which is a way of nonviolence, peace, reconciliation, and mercy, and not be hypocrites who merely take on the name of Christ but only on our own terms and according to what we find convenient.
Likewise, our Gospel selection from Luke (3:1-6) provides another powerful example of a prophetic voice calling to us from scripture. Deliberately situated in history — hence all the identifications of the leaders reigning at the time — this passage recalls the prophet John the Baptist’s role as the herald of the coming messiah. Yet, unlike the expectations of many of the time, the anointed one, the messiah, the christ was not a military or political leader who would overthrow these tetrarchs and high priests, but God’s very self who came to show us how to live. For this reason, John’s prophetic call is not a call to arms, not an invitation to double down and protect oneself against an outside threat. It is a call to do the exact opposite: to let down one’s arms, to repent and seek forgiveness for one’s sins, to prepare the world for the coming of God’s peaceful and just reign.
Like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Baruch, John’s prophecy includes a call to concrete action: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the path for God.
Like his first-century hearers, we too are extolled to repent, to seek forgiveness, and to prepare the way of the Lord in our own time.
In this season of Advent, we must ask ourselves: how are we preparing the way for the Lord? Have we repented? Do we seek forgiveness?
It seems clear that, as a society, we in the United States have done none of these things when it comes to responding to the epidemic of gun violence in our country. Some may think to themselves: “But I don’t even own a gun, let alone engage in shooting others, surely I am not responsible.” But as the church teaches, there is such a thing as “structures of sin” that extend beyond individual acts and implicate entire groups of people, entire populations.
Both in Pope John Paul II’s 1988 encyclical (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis no. 36) and in the official Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (no. 119), both official teachings of the church, we are told that “the consequences of sin perpetuate the structures of sin” and that there are “obstacles and condition that go well beyond the actions and brief life span of the individual and interfere also in the process of the development of peoples.” John Paul II explains that there are two primary ways that this sense of social, collective sin is perpetuated: the “all-consuming desire for profit” and “the thirst for power,” both pursued “at any price” (no. 37).
The gun industry and the political intransigence that exists in our country is reflective of exactly this reality of structural sin. And we are all in part to blame.
That we sit back and do nothing, like the people Baruch and John the Baptist were addressing in their times, implicates each of us in this web of violence, which does not reflect God’s will nor does it prepare the way for the Lord, the Lord whom we name “the Prince of Peace.”
As the New York Times and other outlets have reported, since 1996 the U.S. Congress, in response to pressure from the gun lobby, have prevented the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting comprehensive research into gun violence. Not only have lawmakers after the killing of little children in Newton, to mention only one of the horrific instances of recent gun violence, failed to pass laws to limit weapons of war in the hands of civilians, but for decades lawmakers have refused to allow even the official collection of data and study of these instances of horrendous violence.
If you add up the number of shootings in the United States from the beginning of the year in which four or more people have been killed or injured in a single shooting — there have been more than 355 such events so far this year. If we broaden our view to look at deaths by guns in general, in 2013 (the most recent year we have this data) firearms killed 33,636 people. By comparison, in 2013, 33,804 died in car accidents.
But here’s the thing, driving cars as dangerous as that activity may be, is necessary. And the purpose of cars — at least to my knowledge — is transportation, not murder.
Guns, on the other hand, even non-military-grade firearms designed for animal hunting, are always and everywhere designed to kill: human beings and animals. Period. And by definition, they are not necessary.
Furthermore, and you have a right as Catholic Christians to know this, the church makes it clear that not only is it not an unalienable individual right to own firearms, but that our church’s teaching is clear about the government’s responsibility to actually intervene and control such firearms and weapons. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church highlights this as an ethical imperative:
Appropriate measures are needed to control the production, sale, importation and exportation of small arms and light weapons, armaments that facilitate many outbreaks of violence to occur. The sale and trafficking of such weapons constitute a serious threat to peace: these arms kill and are used for the most part in internal and regional conflicts; their ready availability increases both the risk of new conflicts and the intensity of those already underway. The position of States that apply severe controls on the international transfer of heavy arms while they never, or only very rarely, restrict the sale and trafficking of small arms and light weapons is an unacceptable contradiction. It is indispensable and urgent that Governments adopt appropriate measures to control the production, stockpiling, sale and trafficking of such arms in order to stop their growing proliferation, in large part among groups of combatants that are not part of the military forces of a State (no. 511).
Only the “military forces of a State” have the right “to bear arms,” not civilians. And we can see why! Nothing good comes from guns. Only death, and unlike the western expansion of the 18th and 19th centuries where firearms might have been necessary to protect settlers from wild animals, firearms that were of course never assault rifles or semiautomatic hand guns, we live in a time when there is no practical purpose for the existence of such weapons. And certainly not in the hands of ordinary citizens.
As Advent continues and we move closer to celebrating the birth of the Lord, we must ask ourselves whether we are serious about living the Gospel or not, whether will respond to Baruch and John’s prophetic call or not, whether we are willing to admit that we collectively need to repent and seek forgiveness in order to prepare the way of the Lord or not.
We can do something about this — a call or email to our congressional representative or to the offices of our senators, to say that enough is enough and that they must stand up to the “greed for profit” and “desire for power” of the gun lobby.
If we don’t do something, if we don’t respond to the scriptural call to act concretely, then we have absolutely no business celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace in two weeks.