The great Temple of Jerusalem is in ruins. The Babylonians wiped Jerusalem off the face of the earth and had taken most Israelites into slavery. Then the Persians did the same thing to the Babylonians permitting the Israelites to return to their homeland. Many did not, because the first ones to return sent word back that it was better to stay where they were than face the destruction and misery in the homeland. Here is the dilemma faced by the prophet whose words open this Advent Season and our new year of grace, praise, and thanksgiving. How is it possible to convince an entire generation to spend their lives rebuilding a new city and Temple? Most of the captives felt their lives were just fine the way they were. Imagine the prophet standing in the ruins of the destroyed Temple speaking the words we just heard.
The Temple was built by a people who had a relationship with God and a covenant with God that could be celebrated and renewed generation after generation. The prophet now wonders what good it would do and how it would be possible to build the Temple again when there is no relationship and covenant with God. The building is symbolic. It represents the faith of the people in their relationship with God. That ruin is only a sign of the ruined relationship with God once enjoyed by the Israelites. It will do no good to build a Temple when there is nothing to do there. It will do no good to build a Temple when there is no relationship to celebrate and no covenant to affirm with its sacrifices. No relationship with God means no Temple and no Jerusalem.
“None call upon your name, none rouse themselves to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt” cries the prophet. It almost sounds as though he is blaming God until that last word: guilt. It is that recognition and admission that shifts the blame back upon the guilty, those guilty of abandoning the covenant and the God of covenant.
It is a timeless message, and an experience of every age and generation. It is the focus of this season, and the challenge of our time: rebuilding our relationship with God. Our celebration of Christmas is a celebration of God breaking into human lives, and these weeks of prayer must awaken our awareness of God’s presence and God’s action all around us and within us. There is no way to notice God’s presence without a desire for that presence.
The prophet still cries out to this world and our generation. Half of this world looks like the Jerusalem he saw. All around the ancient world ruins of churches dot the desert and the countryside. Great centers of faith like Ireland are littered with ruins and empty churches. Huge urban Cathedrals built by people of great faith are filled with foreign tourists while simple country churches are boarded up. In our own country, the church struggles painfully with the burden of abandoned and empty urban churches while angry people in the suburbs protest the closure of places filled only with memories of their parents. Old memories is all they have because they make no new ones. Country parish churches are abandoned as rural life fades away with the migration to the glamor of city life. We sit here week after week wondering where others have gone, missing our children, and watching the number of people at Mass decline year after year. The prophet cries again.
The prophet speaks to you and me about our relationship with God and our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. In the Gospel Mark speaks to a people who live with the risk of missing the return of Christ, who do not see the very real and powerful presence of God always and everywhere at work for good all around them. Wake up and pay attention is the message from God today. Wake up to the presence of God and pay attention to what God is doing.
Our faith is not about rules and obligations. It is first of all about a relationship, and then the responsibilities that come from that relationship. A relationship with the living God brings some responsibilities when we have entered into it just like a marriage brings some responsibilities. No parent sits up all night with a sick child because of a rule, but rather because of responsibilities lovingly accepted.
Christmas, just like the Thanksgiving holiday we have just celebrated always reminds us of relationships as family gathers and friends are remembered. The feast we soon will celebrate only makes sense when we are prepared and pay attention to the God who still has more to do with us; the God Paul speaks of today when he says: “God is faithful, and it was God who called you to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”