(Preken holdt i Blackfriars Priory 24. juni, med takk til Paul Otto Brunstad for hans tale under minnestunden etter bror Arnfinns begravelse)

Dear brothers and sisters

I often like to think of the liturgical year as a giant clockwork working its way through the seasons. At certain moments, the big bells start to ring, telling us that there is a key event coming up. These events are spread out over the months, complementing each other and amplifying the meaning of our faith.

One of those pair of events enriching each other is the relation between Christmas and today’s feast. In the mystery of the incarnation, Mary gives birth to him who brings tidings of the Kingdom of God. And as Mary carried Jesus under her heart, the Church is a place where the Lord dwells, bringing Christ to this world through her sacramental and liturgical life. The welcoming home that the Church is called to be is complemented by today’s feast. John the Baptist is ’the voice of one crying out in the desert’ (John 1,23). He is the ultimate prophet, announcing the coming of our Saviour as he acclaims: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ (Isaiah 40,3). We find then, that the Church is our Mother, caring for us as Mary cared for her Son. And the Church is the voice of the Prophet, pointing towards God as John did in the desert of his time.

But who is this prophetic voice? Sometimes when I think of John the Baptist, there is a graffito that comes to my mind. Though there is a certain humour here, there is also a certain sting of truth when we read the text: ‘And Jesus said to his disciples: Follow me! I’ll be here, right behind you!’

I think this point is even more applicable to John the Baptist. Since the blessed meeting between him and Jesus while they’re still in their mother’s womb, John has been driven by a holy desire. He has been pushed by something so strong that he knows it will one day lead to his ending: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’ (John 3,30).
John is driven, but he does not fully know towards what. He is both strong and weak. Filled with strength from the Holy Spirit, he acclaims: ‘Repent, and believe!’ Filled with doubts he asks Jesus through his disciples: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’ (Mt 11,3)

But beneath all this, we feel this inner urge in John the Baptist. He is shouting because there is something at stake. In fact, everything is at stake! It is a matter of life and death. In his spiritual sensibility, in his desperate desire to make people understand the depths and importance of the Gospel, John is an example to follow. And we find examples who, driven by the same spirit, express this same divine desire in our own time. I would like to talk about one of these voices.

A few days ago, I was at a funeral in Oslo. A close friend of mine, the prior of Oslo, Arnfinn Haram, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, by a heart attack during a bicycle trip into the forests north of Oslo. He was known for his sharp pen, criticising the media and the mainstream society for the discrimination of religious beliefs. In spite of their claim of being accepting and tolerant, they often show a remarkable level of intolerance when it comes to the Christian faith.

In meeting with this cynical and antireligious culture, brother Arnfinn was in many ways ‘a voice in the desert’; someone who many, although they did not agree, could not ignore. He turned both outwards to the wider society, but also inwards, to the Catholic Church, urging the faithful to deepen their faith, to be true witnesses of the Gospel and to stand firm when Christian values are challenged.

During the reception after the funeral, a friend of Arnfinn told about a conversation they had had on the phone. Arnfinn referred to a book he had been reading, called ‘The Rage Against God’, by Peter Hitchens. Having turned his back to Christianity in his adolescence, Hitchens returns to the Christian faith. But the Anglican Church – the way he remembered it as a child – is no longer the same, and he compares his return with a painting of Thomas Hart Benton called The Prodigal Son.

This Picture shows the returning son in front of his father’s house. But instead of a warm welcoming, a feast and the reconciliation, the house is deserted. ‘There will be no forgiveness, no best robe, no ring, no music and dancing’ (Hitchins, p. 80).

And brother Arnfinn told our common friend that when he read this, he was shedding tears. He was thinking of our Church, and was asking himself: Can it be that this home – the Catholic Church – waiting for all these prodigal sons and daughters risks being deserted? Can it be that on the day when they want to return, these tormented souls find just a cold stone wall instead of the home they search for?

John the Baptist is standing in the desert, reaching out

 to all who wants to listen, small and great, from his own disciples to Herod. He is spreading out seeds of the Gospel and trusts that it will give growth by the power of God. So are we also called to follow his example. We are called to confess our faith, both in the liturgy and in our lives. By coming together as the people of God, celebrating the mysteries in Christ, we become signs in this world, signs of a loving truth that lies beyond the pure material existence. In Christ, we also find our own unique calling, and in the context where we find ourselves we have a key role to play; in family life, in professional life, and in meeting with the wider society.

As co-workers in Christ, we are called to participate in shaping both the world and the Church. And it is urgent. Because lives may be won, and lives may be lost. Souls are searching for a way, and we have been entrusted with the task of announcing the Gospel: The Kingdom of God is near.

br Haavar Simon Nilsen OP.

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