Msgr. Joseph A. Pellegrino
Second Sunday of Advent: Our Need for a Savior
Today’s first reading is from the Book of Baruch. Baruch had been a disciple of the prophet Jeremiah. This was at the time of the Babylonian conquest and the exile of the people of Kingdom of Judah, about 588 BC. Most of the people were led in chains to Babylon. Some were taken by other nations. Some, like those who held Jeremiah, fled to Egypt. Baruch’s prophecy is that the time is coming when the hand of God would prevail over the captors and the people would return from their exile. And that time did come when Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians and sent all the captive people back to the homelands.
So what? I mean, what does this have to do with us, living 2,600 years later? Why should we be concerned with the historical events of 25 centuries ago? Well, if we stay on the plain of history, these events really don’t have anything to do with us. But, if we go beyond history and consider the human condition, then the readings are all about us.
The Hebrews were brought into exile not just because they were weaker than their neighbors, but because they deserted the God who had formed them into His people. No, they had not stopped worshiping in the Temple, but their faith in God was very much just lip service. They joined in with the pagan customs of those around them. They practiced pagan immorality. They even offered their children for child sacrifice to the pagan gods. They adopted pagan glorification of the material over the spiritual. For all these sins, God let them be led into exile. Once in exile, the people realized that there was no hope for them to free themselves. They were captives of a powerful kingdom. They realized that they were completely dependent on God to free them. They needed Him to work his Power and Might for them. Baruch prophesied that God would deliver them. And he did.
The condition the Hebrew people were in is not all that different than our human condition. So many people give lip service to religion, but live as pagans. So many people join in with the glorification of the material over the spiritual. Immorality attacks us every day. Sometimes it is out in the world. Sometimes it is within our families. Often it is within each of us. We want to, we have to fight evil, but it is stronger than we are, at least then we are left by ourselves. So we call upon God to deliver us from evil. He is more powerful than any thing that is attacking us. He frees us from all that holds us captive.
In his book, Starlight, John Shea presents a well known story of a people who needed to recognize their frailty and need for God. I believe this story can help us understand why we call out to God every Advent. The story is the Wolf of Gubbio. Back in the 13th century Italy there was a beautiful city named Gubbio nestled in the foothills of the Apennines. The city had magnificent Churches, a splendid civic building, a beautiful piazza for meetings and people who were very, very proud of their city. When the people from Gubbio traveled to another part of Italy, they would be recognized by their dress just as all people of that epoch wore the distinctive clothing of their village. They would also be recognized by their haughtiness. “We are from Gubbio,” they would proclaim with their words and their mannerisms. They were proud, defiant and very full of themselves.
One night in the early fall a shadowy figure lurked out of the woods near Gubbio. It made its way through the streets and the alleys of the city. The next morning a terrible discovery was made in Gubbio. One of the citizens of the city, an elderly man, was found dead in the street. He was bloodied. Bones were broken. He appeared to be mauled. Everyone was afraid. “Some stranger must have come to our city and done this horrible thing,” someone said. Everyone agreed. That night, for the first time, everyone locked their doors. Everyone stayed inside, everyone except for one lady. She was found dead the next morning. As the people gathered around her body another lady called out. “I saw what happened. It was a wolf. I saw a wolf walk right down the street by my house last night. A big grey wolf.”
All that day, the talk of the town was, “What are we going to do? How are we going to get this wolf out of Gubbio?” Two young men heard about the wolf and decided that this was a wonderful opportunity for them. They would stay up that night
and kill the wolf. Then everyone in town would appreciate them and reward them for the rest of their lives. So they stayed up and hunted the wolf. Only the wolf found them first. As the towns people gathered around their bodies, some said, “We will have to call for military assistance.” But others said, ‘No, then all of Italy will know that there is a wolf in Gubbio. People will mock us. No one will ever visit our city again. No merchants will come to trade with us.” And they cried, “What will we do? What will we do?”
A young girl in the crowd said, “I heard that in one of our neighboring cities there is a holy man who talks to animals. Why don’t we ask him to talk to the wolf.” Some people thought that she was crazy, but no one had a better idea. So they sent a delegation to the neighboring city with the mission to find the holy man and to have him tell the wolf to obey God’s commandments. “Tell the wolf to go someplace else. Perhaps he can tell the wolf to go to Perugia. They deserve a wolf in Perugia. Perhaps he can tell the wolf to go to Spoleto. They wouldn’t even recognize a wolf in Spoleto.”
The delegation went to that city and found out that indeed there was a holy man there who had a reputation of talking to animals. They found him on the outskirts of the city, reconstructing an old Church with some of his followers. He was short and frail and wore a dirty brown habit. They told him their problem and asked him to talk to the wolf for them. “Tell him to obey God’s commandments. Tell him to go someplace else.” Perugia seemed to be the best place for a wolf to go.
That evening the holy man traveled to Gubbio and entered the woods on the outskirts of the city. He walked for a little while when he came upon the beast. “Brother wolf,” he said, “we need to talk.”
The next morning the holy man was standing in the Piazza of Gubbio by their beautiful fountain. The people gathered around and asked. “Did you find the wolf. Did you tell him to obey God’s commandments? Did you show him how to get to Perugia?” The Holy Man just stood on the steps of fountain and said, “This is what you are to do. Feed your wolf.”
“Our wolf,” they said. He’s not our wolf.”
But the Holy Man just said again, “Feed your wolf,” and he moved through the crowd and went back to his own city.
That night the long grey figure lurked again through
the city. The wolf went up one street, then the next, and then down an alley. Suddenly, a door opened and a plate of meat was pushed outside. The wolf ate the meat and went away. The next evening the wolf came back. He went down that same street and into that same alley. Another door opened. Another plate of meat was pushed outside. Again the wolf ate and left. After a while everyone one in the city, every single family, had fed the wolf. Now, when they would travel from city to city and people would ask them where they were from, they would say, ‘Gubbio.” The people would then ask, “Gubbio, don’t you have a wolf in Gubbio?” And they would respond. “Yes, and we feed our wolf in Gubbio.”
Now that holy man, of course, was Francis of Assisi. The story goes that the same year that Francis taught the people of Gubbio to feed their wolf, he began the tradition of the Christmas crib and celebrating midnight Mass around the crib. This took place on the land of John of Grecco. According to legend, on that first Midnight Mass around the crib, the manger was empty, but John of Grecco and others saw a baby in the manger sleeping. When after the Gospel Francis, who was a deacon, began to preach, the baby opened its eyes.
Many people were drawn to Assisi by Francis’ simplicity. They also wanted to see that first Christmas crib. Of course there were also animals drawn to that crib. There were sheep and oxen, cows, dogs, a donkey or two, and they tell us, at that first Christmas crib there was also a wolf.
The point of the strange story is that the people had been so arrogant that they didn’t recognize their need for a Savior. When Francis told them to feed their wolf, he was telling them to realize their need for God.
If we are haughty and above it all, how can we possibly appreciate the gift of a child in a manger? How can we even want the gift of a child in a manger if we are so taken with our own splendor. Why should we who wear gold and silver
be drawn to a child in rags? Do we even need a Savior if we are so convinced of our innate goodness?
But if we recognize our frailty, we then will understand our need for the Son of God to redeem us from ourselves. Then we can appreciate the wonder of Christmas, the wonder of the birth of Jesus. The wolf in Gubbio is our own frail humanity, our sinfulness, needing the hand of a Savior to feed us, to keep us from destroying ourselves and others. The wolf of Gubbio reminds us that we are dependent on the mercy of God.
This brings us back to the first story, the history of the freeing of the Hebrew People from captivity in Babylon. This is an analogy of the infinite mercy of God freeing us from the forces of evil.
Pope Francis often reminds us that we need God’s mercy. One of the themes of his papacy is that God’s mercy is greater than our deepest hope and need. Pope Francis loves saying that the only limits to God’s mercy are those we put on God. We stop seeking mercy because we decide that our sins are too terrible to be forgiven. We are wrong. We need His mercy. And He wants us to receive his mercy. God sees what evil is doing to our world. He is greater than evil. He sees what evil is doing to each of us. He sees how much we need to be freed from evil. He has compassion on us. We live under the mercy of God.
“I will sing of your mercy that leads us through valleys of sorrow to rivers of joy,” Jars of Clay sang in the Valley Song. © CCLI License #2368115
We who have been forgiven need to proclaim to the world the mercy of God.
A wonderful way to prepare for Christmas is to recognize the need for Christ in our lives. He is the one who fills our emptiness. He is the one who completes our inadequacies. And what a gift he is! If our emptiness and our inadequacies are filled by Jesus Christ, then we thank God for our need for his presence. We thank God for leading us to call out to his Son. We thank God for the need that he alone can fill. We thank God that there is a wolf in Gubbio. And we proclaim to the world that sees us as frail humans, that yes, we have a wolf. But we feed our wolf. We feed our wolf with that merciful presence whose birth we will celebrate on December 25th.
“Rejoice, Jerusalem! For your Savior is in your midst.”
And God knows, we need Him.