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Blowin' in the Wind

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Second Sunday of Advent (A)  |  Fr Matthew Jarvis urges us not to underestimate the Holy Spirit but to follow his movements of repentance.

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. I am less interested in the debates about whether he qualifies strictly as a literary figure or a ‘poet’, say, than in the fact that he is so often an excellent lyricist – or even, dare I say it, preacher. For example: ‘You gotta serve somebody: it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.' The Jewish and Christian inspiration of so many Dylan songs is palpable, even where he is at his most subtle. 

Perhaps this is never more so than in Blowin’ in the wind. Here Dylan speaks of people looking and not seeing, having ears and yet not hearing, echoing the ancient prophet's cry that Israel is 'a rebellious house, who have eyes to see, but see not, who have ears to hear, but hear not’ (Ezek 12:1-2; cf. Jer 5:21). There is injustice and violence in the world, in our homes and in our hearts. We need to open our eyes to see and our ears to hear, and we need to turn our hearts back to God. We need to listen to the greatest of prophets, John the Baptist, saying to us in today’s gospel: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’

John bursts on the scene every Advent as the Forerunner to Christ: ‘the one who follows me is more powerful than I, and I am not fit to carry his sandals’. In his preaching, Jesus actually has the same message as John – ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’ (Mt 4:17) – but the focus different. John is the signpost, the one who points to Jesus. John is the voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare a way for the Lord’. Whereas Jesus is the Lord incarnate, the one who says, ‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Mt 11:28). John baptises with water for repentance, but acknowledges a greater baptism to come: it is Jesus who ‘will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire’, for the forgiveness of sins.

The Holy Spirit was not, of course, absent before the coming of Christ. He was hovering over the waters at the dawn of creation and was breathed into the nostrils of the first human being, according to the Church Fathers’ reading of Genesis (1:2; 2:7). The Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole earth and is present to all things (Wis 1:7; cf. Jer 23:24). Jesus himself teaches us that his Spirit is like the wind, blowing wherever it wills (Jn 3:8). So Dylan may refer to the Spirit when he sings: 'The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind...'

This is the Spirit of which Isaiah speaks in our first reading: ‘a spirit of wisdom and insight, a spirit of counsel and power, a spirit of knowledge and of piety, and his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord’. Here we have the scriptural basis for the Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, with which we are strengthened in the Sacrament of Confirmation.

John the Baptist was filled with these seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. His mother Elizabeth was 'filled with the Holy Spirit’ at the moment John leapt in her womb to greet the unborn Christ (Lk 1:41). Thus John is understood to have been sanctified in the womb, receiving the fulness of sanctifying grace, which is why the Church celebrates the feast of his birth (on 24 June), the only person to be so honoured besides Christ and Mary. Then as a grown man, John exhibited the gifts of the Spirit, having knowledge and wisdom, a deep insight into God’s unfolding plan, and being inspired to preach with counsel and power that piety and fear of the Lord are necessary for repentance. 

The Pharisees and Saducees who heard John preaching think that they have a guaranteed place in the kingdom without producing the fruits of repentance and conversion. They underestimate the Holy Spirit, who blows where he wills. We should not follow their example. The Spirit is even now calling us to repentance and faith in Christ this Advent. For we read in St Paul today that God has not only confirmed the covenants with the patriarchs of Israel, but also offered salvation to the gentiles, so that all peoples 'might glorify God for his mercy’.

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Isaiah 11:1-10  |  Romans 15:4-9  |  Matthew 3:1-12

Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP of a stained glass window from Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Fr Matthew Jarvis O.P.


Fr Matthew Jarvis is currently studying Patristics at the Catholic University of Lyon.

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