Once upon a time … Many stories we tell begin with a reference to a time long ago and far away. These stories relate important truths, but the actual facts of what happened may or may not be true. As storyteller and theologian Megan McKenna likes to say, “All stories are true and some of them actually happened.”
The readings for the Second Sunday of Advent differ from many of the stories we encounter in the first books of the Bible. The first books were written hundreds if not thousands of years after the events they describe. Some of them are clearly not historical – “In the beginning …” Others present a picture of how things came to be, somewhat like fables we learn as children. Some tell stories of the first families from whom all are descended. Details of these stories are hard to document in terms of our modern understanding of history. But in the readings today we have historical details that support the narrative, the story being told.
The first reading comes from Baruch (5:1-9). Baruch was an aristocrat, a member of the court of King Zedekiah just before the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem. He was also a scribe for Jeremiah the prophet. We know this from a history written by Josephus, a Jewish historian in the first century. In the book of Baruch, Jerusalem is described as a woman mourning the death of a loved one – sitting in clothes that indicate she is mourning during the first seven days after the death. A woman “sitting shiva.” Baruch speaks words of hope. “Take off your robe of mourning and misery, put on the splendor of glory from God forever.” She is to put on a cloak of justice and wear a mitre (a special turban or hat) proclaiming the glory of God’s name, like that worn by Aaron when the Israelites traveled with Moses through the desert.
Jerusalem will see her children returning from exile, being led back by God. As they come, the mountains will be leveled and the gorges will be filled ahead of them, so the road back will be smooth and secure. Fragrant trees will protect the way and welcome the travelers, as Israel is led by God in glory, with mercy and justice personified as their companion.
What a glorious hope for a people suffering exile in the land of their enemies! This book was probably written long after that time described, but the person whose name it bears is known to have lived during the time just before and during the exile. It is a book of prayers, poems, and prophecies filled with hope.
Psalm 126 repeats the refrain of the joy of exiles returning from foreign lands. Those who watch them return marvel, “The Lord has done great things for them.” They return carrying the fruits of the harvest that has grown during their time of exile. They have not remained helplessly suffering and stagnating. During their time of exile, they have grown.
The Gospel of Luke begins before the birth of either Jesus or his cousin John, but today we hear some of the story of the prophetic travels and activities of John (Lk 3:1-6). This section begins with a long list of political rulers, the timeframe in which it occurs, the regions they governed, and their leadership positions. We get a very real sense of what was going on in the Roman empire, Palestine, and Jerusalem as John and Jesus come onto the scene – two cousins who will unexpectedly become influential in their world. Both men are from families that would not ordinarily have attracted any attention at all. John’s father was a priest at the temple. Jesus’ father was a tradesman in the town of Nazareth in the north of the country near the sea of Galilee. Yet both men played critical roles in the drama of reconciliation between God and humans – salvation history.
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea … the word of the Lord came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” John had been living as a hermit in the desert for many years, but the Lord called him to action. He began to call people to repentance, to change their way of behaving towards each other and move towards the freedom of living in God’s forgiveness and justice. As a symbol of this transition, he used baptism, a ritual of purification with water that was deeply rooted in his Jewish tradition. He spoke of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Valleys are to be filled and mountains leveled. Everything that can get in the way of those who seek the Lord is to be leveled. “All flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Many years after John the Baptist announced the coming of the Lord, St. Paul sends a letter to the community of believers in Philippi (Phil 1:4-6, 8-11). This is a community to which Paul has brought the message of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They are people he knows and loves. They are also people whom he is not likely ever to see again. He writes while he is a prisoner in Rome, awaiting the judgement that will result in his release or his execution. He shares the joy he feels in their faith and commitment to the life of the gospel. He expresses his deep-seated love for them and prays that their love will grow and deepen each day, so they will be pure and blameless at Christ’s return. Love in the sense of the word he uses is love with no limits and no strings attached. Love in the best and deepest sense of the word, a love that leads to purity of heart.
Paul’s words speak to us too. We too are called to this deep love and to growth in love throughout our lives. Hearing the word of the Lord is only the first step on the road to salvation, the road to the fullness of life in God’s kingdom. We grow each day as we practice loving and caring for each other and those whom the Lord sends our way. The child who bumps into us in the grocery store. The stranger who doesn’t know the roads in our town and makes sudden moves to get into the lane just ahead of us to make a turn. The family member who will never (insert your pet peeve here). The man on the street who cries out in madness, unable to find release from the illness that torments his mind. The uneducated woman who travels from another country with her young daughter, seeking a safe place to live and protection from those who would kill them both because her husband is a police officer.
Many opportunities open up each day, calling for us to reach out in love. God is coming. God has come. God lives among us. How do I make the ways straight for others to experience his presence? Do I notice the valleys that have been filled and the mountains leveled to help us to pass? Will I continue to grow in love? How will you and I spend our Advent time? Will we be bearers of peace and hope in our world?Read More