by Sister Marianne Watts, OP “CHANGES”

We hear often of transformation and change, yet our world seems to be mired in a state of permanent war and our legislators—many of them—trapped in a manic refusal to move away from the status quo or to listen to the voices in our wilderness. But then, there is Hope.

As Father Richard Rohr says:In those days, John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’ I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

John the Baptist’s qualities are most rare and yet crucial for any reform or authentic transformation of persons or groups. That is why we focus on John the Baptist every Advent and why Jesus trusts him and accepts his non-temple, offbeat nature ritual . . . . This son of the priestly temple class does his own thing down by the riverside; he is a man born into privilege who dresses like a hippie; he is a superstar who is willing to let go of everything. . . . There’s got to be such emptiness, or we cannot point beyond ourselves. . . .

John is not a role model that our “good” people would choose for their children. He would be a scandal if he appeared in our 21st century churches or temples or mosques, if only for his manner of dress. He isn’t “respectable” or polite; he doesn’t “make conversation” about safe topics—he challenges people right down to their souls to confront who they are and to repent. And what is repentance but transformation in love and compassion so that together we make the wilderness home?

Some consider Pope Francis a novelty. Seemingly not as radical as John the Baptist until his words and his lifestyle are recognized for what they are: pointers beyond himself to the same love and compassion for the poor that brings us together as God’s people.

According to Jeff Dietrich, a member of the L.A. Catholic Worker for over 40 years, author of Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles’ Skid Row]:

This is a pope who occupies the bulliest of all bully pulpits in the world and has radically moved the discussion of Catholic theology from what happens below the waistline to what happens in the streets. And if nothing else happens, he has removed theological justification from every parish priest or bishop who wants to build an extravagant, unnecessary church or purchase sumptuous satin vestments. He has prevented Catholic legislators like John Boehner and Paul Ryan from wrapping Ayn Rand capitalism in the mantle of Catholic social teachings. He has ripped the mask of rectitude from the leaders of the developed world who can no longer preach trickle-down capitalism as if it were the gospel of salvation.

But most of all, he has given hope to the poor as well as to the lone voices in the wilderness, “bruised, hurting and dirty” from their thankless work for justice on the streets. They can now speak not only with the authority of Jesus and the Gospels, but with the authority of the Roman Catholic Church itself. Finally, the message of those in the margin has been heard in the halls of power. As one of my favorite poets once said: “The times, they are a-changin’.”

No one personified changing times and the desperate need for transformation more radically and forcefully than Nelson Mandela. Read his words:

“Our grief is tearing us apart. … What has happened is a national tragedy that has touched millions across the political and color divide.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

“Reconciliation requires that we join hands … to eradicate the poverty spawned by a system that thrived on the deprivation of the majority. . . Reconciliation requires that we end malnutrition, homelessness and ignorance . . . that we put shoulders to the wheel to end crime and corruption.”

After years of destructive and debasing racial apartheid against his people and himself, Nelson Mandela refused to celebrate vengeance against the weakened white power structure, a right that many would say he earned through his suffering; nor would he allow his country to do so. Reconciliation and forgiveness were to be the cornerstone of his five-year term as president.

Three Wise Men: A Jew, a Latino, a Black. These are our Advent people. In similar, yet paradoxical ways, each speaks the Gospel of love and compassion to our wilderness world in the language of Hope.

Can this truly be the beginning of a new day?