Commentary on Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-6,8; Luke 3:1-6
THERE ARE MANY STRANGE NAMES in today’s Gospel. They are the names of people and places most of us have never heard of. Why does Luke mention these people and places? First of all, because he is simply following the custom of his day both for Jewish and Greek writing.
But, more importantly, he is saying that the story of John the Baptist and of Jesus is really historical. This story really happened in this world at a particular time and a particular place. It is not a mere myth in the sense of a story which has meaning but no basis in fact.
Luke is preparing us for the announcement of God coming among us as a human being. He is preparing the stage for this great drama. And so he gives:
- the exact time this is going to happen
- the political situation (Palestine was a colony of the Roman Empire)
- the religious situation (Annas and Caiaphas were high priests)
- the place (a small province in the eastern part of the Empire).
Any modern history of those times will corroborate the facts that Luke gives.
Not just a fable
The story about Jesus Christ which is about to unfold (and also the accompanying story of John the Baptist) is not just a tale like the many fables about the gods of Greece and Rome and Babylon.
Jesus was a real person. And this person was also a man, not a woman. (By that is meant no slur on the dignity of women but to emphasise that Jesus, as a historical human being, belonged to one identifiable gender and was not, as many mythical heroes were, androgynous.)
Jesus lived in a particular place and at a particular moment in history. The place can be pointed out to this day and there are still people making it their home. The times in which he lived are well within the records of written history.
Jesus spoke a particular language, called Aramaic. And presumably he spoke it with the accent of the people of Galilee. He did not know English (a language which in its present form did not yet exist) and almost certainly would not have known any Latin. He probably knew Hebrew (he read the Scripture publicly in the synagogue [Luke 4:16]) and may have had some colloquial Greek, the lingua franca of the Eastern Mediterranean.
His face, eyes, teeth, mouth, colour of his hair and the sound of his voice (tenor or bass?) were all distinctive and unique to him as they are to each one of us. Whether he looked anything like the traditional pictures of artists down the centuries is something we cannot be certain about, although in the Shroud of Turin he is represented as bearded and having long hair. Of course, the authenticity of the Shroud is still being debated.
At the same time, there is a universal quality in Jesus’ life and message which makes him relevant for peoples of all times and all places. That is what the “mystery” of the Gospel is about. We should have no difficulty seeing Jesus represented as a Chinese, a Japanese, a Filipino, a Nigerian, or a Jamaican. The Creed does not say that the Son of God was made a man (vir, male) but homo, a human being, inclusive of all genders and ethnic origins. (See pictures below)
John the Baptist
Today’s Gospel, however, speaks of John the Baptist. He – an equally historical figure – was chosen to announce the coming of Jesus: the Messiah, the Christ, the Saviour King.
“Prepare a way for the Lord,” he calls out 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, of course, is not here the Sacrament of Baptism by which people are incorporated into the Christian community. But it was a sacramental or symbolic action through which people expressed by their immersion in the waters of the River Jordan their desire to have their evil past totally washed away.
This washing away would not be effected automatically or magically but only by their repentance. In fact, the term Luke uses is “baptism of repentance” (baptisma metanoias, ). ‘Repentance’ is the common translation for the Greek word metanoia, which means 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. The word here for forgiveness is aphesis (’, a release, a letting go, a liberation from the chains of sin and evil. Forgiveness is seen as the dropping off of heavy baggage or burdens (like the space capsule dropping off its booster tanks and soaring off on its own into space). Forgiveness, too, involves a total reconciliation with our God and with all those whom we have hurt or with whom we have come in conflict. It is a healing, a making whole.
Preparing a way
This was how people were to “prepare a way for the Lord”. This was how, as Luke says, echoing the First Reading from the prophet Baruch, valleys were to be filled in, mountains and hills laid low, winding ways straightened and rough roads made smooth. This was how each one was to have the personal experience in their own heart of the saving power of God.
That is how we are to open ourselves for that saving power. 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.
This is what we are preparing to celebrate during this Advent time. After the coming of Jesus, the world will not be the same. Today we are still under the influence of that coming. Today, 2,000 years later, people still ask to be baptised and come under his influence. They wish to become his disciples, to walk his way and to experience in themselves the saving power of God.
What is all this saying to us? There can be two responses on our part.
Firstly, each year as the Advent season comes round and we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we need once more to hear the challenging call of John the Baptist to baptism, metanoia and forgiveness.
Although our own Baptism was something which may have taken place a long time go, as an infant or as an adult, what happened then has constantly to be renewed. We need to re-affirm our commitment to the Christian community, to the Body of Christ, through which we go to God and through which our God comes to us.
We need to open ourselves to further conversion, to an ever deeper change of heart, to a deeper listening to what Jesus is asking of us, “Lord, what do you want me to do, to be?”
And, thirdly, we need, because of our commitment to the Body of Christ, to find total reconciliation with God and with all those people who come into our lives.
A similar role
Our second response is a realisation 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.