During a reflection day I was privileged to give several months ago for retired priests of the Peoria, IL diocese, the discussion turned to a topic haunting many older priests. We’ve spent much of our ministry preaching and living the reforms of Vatican II. Now as we grow old we see many recently ordained priests not only dissing those reforms, but encouraging their people to return to pre-conciliar theologies and practices.
When one of the day’s participants expressed a fear he’d wasted his ministry’s best years in pursuit of a reform which is on the verge of being forgotten, Fr. John Dietzen shared a hopeful observation. The syndicated columnist reminded us, “The Eucharist is still in English. And as long as it is, our people will hear God’s word as it was originally intended to be heard. That means there’s always a chance for reform.”
Our sacred authors couldn’t agree more.
Whoever cut the middle three verses from today’s first reading wasn’t a student of Deutero-Isaiah. The prophet based his entire ministry on one of those omitted verses: “Though the grass withers and the flower wilts, the word of our God stands forever.” Mired in a 50-year exile, no hope of return, Deutero-Isaiah’s preaching revolved around trusting God’s word. What Yahweh proclaimed, Yahweh will bring about.”
There’s just one problem: the future won’t be an exact copy of the past. Though the prophet constantly employs Exodus imagery to convey his message of return, the Chosen People’s liberation from Babylon will be very different from their liberation from Egypt. God never achieves the same goals in quite the same way.
Mark’s treatment of John the Baptizer demonstrates that same diversity. John’s depicted as a classic Hebrew prophet, “clothed in camel’s hair, a leather belt around his waist. His food was grasshoppers and wild honey.” Our very first “book prophet,” Amos, would have identified with John’s stark lifestyle. Yet John never says, “Look for someone just like me to come after me.” Instead, he proclaims, “One more powerful than I is to come after me. I am not fit to stoop and untie his sandal straps.” One outward sign of difference: “I have baptized you in water; he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.”
Scripture scholars today presume the historical Jesus and many of his first disciples originally had been John’s disciples. After the Baptizer’s martyrdom, some turned to the Galilean carpenter for leadership, and he eventually took John’s reform in a new direction. Since there were still followers of John several centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection who continued to preach that John, not Jesus, was the Messiah, it’s clear not everyone involved in John’s reform was convinced of Jesus’ new direction and message. Good people simply had to make a choice between keeping the old or exploring the new.