Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-6, 8; Luke 3:1-6
This season of Advent heralds the coming of “God with us” – Emmanuel. It is the time when God comes to earth to take on human form and live as we live. It is the time when God shares his love with us as we should share our love with Him and among ourselves. Advent prepares us to welcome the arrival of God who became man and who by example showed us how He would like us to live. How we should share His love with God and with our neighbors. Luke was very thorough in placing the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry within a historical context. He set John’s ministry in time by telling who the leaders were in the region. John’s role was to prepare the way for Jesus and to proclaim a theme of repentance for those who would follow Jesus. Like any army is busy filling shallow places and leveling mountains to make roads, so also is John’s job to make the pathway smooth for those coming to Jesus. The chronological data given here are more detailed in Luke, indicating that the Ministry of Jesus starts immediately after the preaching and baptizing of John. Today’s message comes to us through the scripture readings that we should continue to prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ in our world and into our lives.
In the first reading of today, the Prophet Baruch reminds Israel that they have to share the gift of joy with others by calling them to put on the garment of integrity. God is asking them not to be part of the sad story of corruption. In this reading God is assuring that he will flatten any high mountains and fill any deep valleys in order to make the ground level. This is an invitation to change their behaviour and reconcile with him. In this prophetic song God promised to bring back His people from exile in Babylon. The Reading begins by giving the people hope and confidence, inviting them to stop mourning for the past and prepare to celebrate the future. It says: “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.” The garment of our sorrow and afflictions is death and suffering that have come upon the Israelites because of their disobedience. Instead the reading asks them to put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God and God will give them evermore the name, ‘Righteous, Peace, and Godly Glory.” The problem for them was the way to keep their faith. The Temple was far away and they were living in a culture completely opposed to their Jewish tradition. Some were even feeling attracted to the prosperity of the place at the cost of their faith. The prophecy states that God would bring His people back to Jerusalem. Through sin the humankind has experienced spiritual death in the eternal absence of the Divine Presence of God. But now, God manifested a special no longer wanted to see them suffer. Jerusalem is personified as a mother about to receive back her exiled children.
In the second reading, we have the apostle Paul stating that he prays with joy for the Philippians, his loyal partners in work of evangelization. He is praying for them to be blameless and pure. He prays that they have grace to discern between right and wrong, good and evil. We too like the Philippians must be known to be men and women of goodwill. We can witness to the world and to one another by maintaining our Christian morals and values. Believers will triumph because God the Father will begin and complete his good work in them. Unfortunately, many times we look for personal pleasure without Christian responsibility. We lose the sense of sin. We become vulnerable to corrupt practices. Paul himself a prisoner of the Romans, now praises the Philippians for their kindness and hospitality. They took care of him during his stay among them and he respected their hospitality. This reminds us to be aware of our own Christian uprightness, especially in treating those who are poor and less fortunate than we are. This manifest joy can perhaps make one lose sight of the cloud that being a prisoner supposes, precisely the condition in which Paul was when he wrote his letter.
Today’s Gospel Reading presents us the words of John the Baptist, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth: and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” He calls out, “Prepare a way for the Lord,” and his words are equally meant for us as for the people he directly spoke to. He comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” says Luke. There are three words there which are closely linked – baptism, repentance, and forgiveness. Baptism is the call to be initiated in the life of Jesus and be cleansed from all blemishes. It is a symbolic action through which people expressed their reconciliation with God by their immersion in the waters of the River Jordan hoping that their desire to have their evil past totally washed away. ‘Repentance’ is the forgiveness of sins and is understood as metanoia, meaning change of Heart not just sorrow for past sins but a total and radical change of outlook in our relationship with God and other people. It calls for a radical and genuine renewal and conversion of heart. This metanoia or conversion in turn will bring about the forgiveness of sin. Forgiveness means a letting go, liberation from the chains of sin and evil. Forgiveness is seen as the dropping off of heavy baggage or burdens. Forgiveness involves a total reconciliation with our God and our neighbours and it is a healing, a making whole.
Luke never wants his Gospel seem disconnected from the history, both secular and religious and that is why he gives the details of important civil and religious leaders as John the Baptist comes on the scene. In the middle of history that John starts his prophetic mission. The people were told to prepare a way for the Lord. They have to straighten the path to receive the power of the Lord. This was how each one was to have the personal experience in our own heart of the saving power of God. It will come through Jesus who will heal the sick, who will help the weak, who will forgive the sinner, who will give hope to the hopeless, who will give life, real life, to all who open their hearts to him. Once Jesus comes the world will not be the same and cannot remain the same. John the Baptist challenged them: he called them to baptism, repentance and forgiveness and thus prepare them to receive Jesus. He called them to reaffirm themselves to a new way of living, to a new commitment to the community, and finally to Jesus who is the God who has come to live with us.
The Gospel reminds us that our own role is not unlike that of John the Baptist. Like him, each one of us has a mission to communicate the Spirit of Christ and his message of hope, love, freedom and peace to others. To help people fill their valleys and make their rough paths smoother. A word of affirmation and encouragement can work wonders. To have a naturally cheerful disposition can be a real witness of Christian joy. John heard the word of God in the desert. Our cities and towns are often such busy places and our lives are often so hectic. We really do need some quiet so that we can hear God speaking to us. Some have the custom of going once a year or so to a retreat house and that is excellent. But there are other times, too, when we need simply to stop doing everything, cut out all noise and listen to ourselves and to our God.
During the course of this week, let us reflect upon our spiritual ancestors, our saintly brothers and sisters, who have gone out from Jerusalem so we may share in the joy of the Gospel of Christ. Let us reflect upon their message which has become our message. Let us prepare ourselves to celebrate the past coming of the Lord that is commemorated on Christmas day. Let us constantly pray for each other with joy in every one of our prayers. Through our participation in the sharing of the Gospel as instruments of the Holy Spirit, let us be confident that He will bring the good works of Christ to its completion before the final coming of the Lord at the end of the world.
Anecdote: A Church goer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. “I’ve gone for 30 years now,” he wrote, “and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I’m wasting my time and the pastors are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all.” This started a real controversy in the “Letters to the Editor” column, much to the delight of the editor. It went on for weeks until someone wrote this clincher: “I’ve been married for 30 years now… In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know this… They all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today!”
Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome