The lectionary passages this week are Malachi 3.1-4, Philippians 1.3-11 and Luke 3.1-6. I am grateful to Ben O’Neill, currently working in Vienna, for sharing his reflections.
One of my tasks here at Christ Church is to manage the Church’s Twitter page, @CCVienna. The concept of Twitter is to keep people up-to-date but with a character limit. We’ve all encountered the hypothetical lift situation in which you are asked to summarise the Christian faith before you reach the third floor. The need to condense our message into one short, snappy statement, can be difficult. So, who are you? What is your message?
It seems to me that most answers to these questions today would include at least one word that ends with -ism. Even within the Church, many of us are keen to divide ourselves into camps. We find all sorts of labels to try and define our identity. This Sunday, we consider John the Baptist. S Luke’s portrayal of John reminds us that our identity is not found in any of the -isms that we create, or the labels we use, but in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Ben and other CEMES interns visiting the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem during the recent CEMES study pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Ben is in the front row standing approximately 4 to the left of the Patriarch, wearing a suit and tie.
Although John the Baptist comes chronologically before Jesus, Luke’s account demonstrates what it means to follow Jesus – namely a recognition that John’s identity is not based on whether he is a Pharisee or an Essene or a Sadducee: Luke doesn’t use his character limit to say on which side of the fence John sits regarding being a Pharisee, Essene or Sadducee. There are no words ending in -ism in sight, but he is grounded in a promise-keeping God.
Luke exhorts us not to focus on John, the messenger, but the person about whom the message is sent. John hears a message from God and he is unafraid to share it, exactly as he hears it, unadorned and unmanipulated.
So, what is that message? It is one of repentance. In the Malachi reading, we see the description of the Messiah’s coming as like a ‘refiner’s fire.’ This image reminds us that following, turning our backs on material possessions and the allures of worldly passions, can be painful. But the role of a refiner is not to destroy, but rather to make the metal more precious, valuable and usable than when it is found in its raw state, as an ore, in a river or stream: there is a positive end that emerges from the difficulties and divine admonishments we face.
The word ‘repent’ means to turn back, to align our wills more closely with the will of the Creator God for us; just as the refining process removes impure molecules, repentance is about actualising the state of glory, realising what it means to be made in the Image of God, the Imago Dei. Repentance is about turning away from sin to follow Christ, and part of that process is being reminded that we need to view these other labels and frameworks, which we construct, in the context of God’s sovereignty.
We, in the Church, can be just as guilty of this. In the divided Church, with its many denominations and even inter-denominational divides, it is easy to focus on the –isms that divide us, rather than what unites us. Gerard Hughes in God of Surprises, defines sin as ‘not letting God be God.’ We all have egos, and personalities, but when we read the Bible or approach Christ in these Holy Mysteries at the Eucharist, we need to empty ourselves of all our social constructs in order to allow God to be God and to allow ourselves to be changed and shaped, becoming humble and obedient like Christ. As Fr James Schall puts it, ‘At Mass we are full of the Lord, not full of ourselves.’
And so, for what are we here? What is our message? What is our purpose? Given 5 minutes to summarise our lives what would we talk about? Would we, as John the Baptist does so clearly, talk about God – or would we use it to glorify ourselves or start narrating all the different -isms with which we identify? In Advent, I am reminded of the Magnificat, ‘My soul doth magnify the LORD.’ Immediately before this, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth has just been praising Mary. This opening line puts things into perspective, recognising that it is God who is worthy of the praise and attention, to divert attention away from herself. John the Baptist’s denial of himself, to point solely to Christ, does the same thing. Saying don’t focus on me, the humble messenger, but focus on God who sent me and who is about to be born into the world, to suffer temptation and death for our sake and to rise again to defeat death and sin, winning the keys of death and hell. Focus on Jesus Christ in whom alone our Salvation and glory is to be found.
Benjamin O’Neill is serving as Intern of Christ Church, Vienna, as part of the wider Church of England Ministry Experience Scheme, a role he combines with being an Erasmus student in the German Department of the University of Vienna. Originally from Durham in the UK, he is currently discerning his vocation to ordained ministry with that diocese.
 See Philippians 2:7