Thinking Anew – ‘Prepare a way for the Lord’

Tomorrow is the Second Sunday of Advent. Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ at the end of time, and a reminder of his first coming at Christmas.

In tomorrow’s Gospel, Mark (1: 1-8) quotes from the Prophet Isaiah that God is going to send a messenger. Isaiah writes: “Prepare a way for the Lord/make his paths straight”.

In a commentary on this passage, Dominican priest, scripture scholar and Corkman Wilfrid Harrington writes that St Mark focuses on John the Baptist as a pointer or witness to the Coming One, that is, Jesus Christ. That idea of someone being a witness, someone with advance news of what is to come, brings us gently to receiving the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Harrington gives examples of John the Baptist-like figures. Among them are Rosa Parks, the woman of colour, who refused to cede her seat on a bus to a white man, as required by law on that famous day in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. That small but gigantic act was a catalyst for the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks was not an important person in society. And that's important for Harrington and for our understanding.


Reading through the different examples that help remind him of Jesus, I find myself thinking of the amazing person Harrington is himself. Imagine, at age 93, contributing articles to scholarly journals and still writing books. Yes, he has been fortunate and blessed to live such a long life in good health and to be a man of great scholarship, but there is much more to him than that.

Fr Harrington taught me in the 1970s. Back then he stood out as a giant. He has devoted his life’s work to the study of the Bible but for me one of his most endearing qualities is his refusal to allow himself to be swallowed up by an institutional church. Back in the 1970s he had the wit, wisdom and indeed, irreverence to cast a cold eye at the failings of the institutional church. He has become one of the country’s leading scripture scholars, but he has never been seduced by clericalism or become a “company man”. His outstanding integrity is strongly anchored within his Christian faith. But that has never stopped him from being critical of troubling aspects of the institutional church. And to top it all, he is a person of great humility.

I have found his willingness to challenge church officials and bureaucrats an inspiration to me to stand back, consider and ask awkward questions. It's true to say that across the world many Christian churches are close to meltdown. The Catholic Church in Ireland is not in a healthy place. Within the church there is division and large numbers of people have spoken with their feet.

We need courageous people who will speak truth to power. We urgently need prophetic people who will point a way for us that will lead us to Jesus Christ. Far too many holy and good people have been alienated from an organisation that refuses to shed all the trappings of entitlement.

In this newspaper, Patsy McGarry, writing recently about the qualities the next archbishop of Dublin will need, praises the good work on the painful topic of child sex abuse that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has done since he took office in 2004. But in that same piece McGarry also quotes Dublin abuse survivor Marie Collins: "Reports, excuses, promises, mean little to me anymore. Clericalism is alive and well, marching forward unhindered".

All his life Harrington has thrown scorn on clericalism and that’s one of the reasons why he stands out for me. He is a pointer, a reminder to me, of what it means to be challenged by the Good News of Jesus Christ. When Harrington mentions people whom he personally sees as witnesses or those who point the way to God, I’m thankful for him and people like him who help me in my search for God.