In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
When approaching the Advent readings what we have to remember is that the first roughly three weeks of this Holy Time isn’t about preparing for the celebration of Christmas. What we are asked to do is prepare for Jesus’ second coming at the end of the age, and with it the need to repent in preparation for the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. In the first week’s Gospel reading Jesus tells us of the great tribulations that will come before the End Times reach their completion. We are to be vigilant, reading the signs of the times, always ready to meet the Lord. Most of all, things will look bleak, but we are to maintain a spirt of faithfulness, vigilance and, joy.
This week we jump back chronologically, to John the Baptist’s first appearance in the desert. Unlike in Mark’s or John’s account, in Luke’s we know where he comes from. We get his origin story. But in the wisdom of the Church’s liturgical rhythms we begin with his appearance in the desert, and will backtrack to hear his infancy narrative as we come closer to Christmas. For now we aren’t interested in choirs of angels singing to shepherds, that will come in all good time. We begin with John, in the dessert, preaching a baptism of repentance.
Because Luke wants to give us an orderly account of what happened, he takes the time to mention who the important players on the religious and secular scenes were when the last Old Testament prophet appeared. For the most part these names mean little to us. Even less, the names of ordinary bystanders that he and the other evangelists often sprinkle into their accounts. But they are vital. They root Jesus and John both into history. The events and words that are being transmitted aren’t myth. We aren’t dealing with ancient gods born out of smoldering rocks or burst forth from the heads of other deities before the ages. We are not in a galaxy long ago and far away. We are at the moment in history, human history, the fullness of time as God saw it, when the Eternal One broke through the barriers separating the Creator from His creation, to complete the task of mending the breach cause by the original sin.
The Church, in arranging the liturgical times and the readings we hear during the Mass is trying to focus us on themes rather than historical events per se. Right now it’s joyful expectation at the coming of the Lord. While Advent isn’t a penitential season in the same way as Lent, there is a call to repentance. There is a need to prepare our hearts to receive the King, which involves a good confession and a time for fasting before the feasting at Christmas. As we will see, when Christmas does arrive, we are asked to meditate on the Incarnation, not just as an historical event, but in terms of what God taking on a human nature means for us now.
This taking events out of order to give priority to the mysteries of the Faith shouldn’t distract us from the fact that Jesus really was born of the Virgin, grew up under the care of Mary and Joseph, His stepfather, walked our streets, experiencing a full human life, albeit free from sin. He really did suffer and die, rising on the last day. He is no myth like Zeus or Apollo, like Superman or Luke Skywalker. John was sent in a time and a place to prepare the way for the Savior. He was inviting people of a particular land, with their sins, their social dynamics, in their political climate, to repent so as to be prepared for the coming of the promised Messiah.
Through the living Scriptures Jesus continues to call us. He continues to use John as His herald. The Church is the external sign, the sacrament of Christ’s salvation. He calls us now, when Rahm Emanuel is mayor of Chicago, Bruce Rauner is governor of Illinois and, Donald Trump is president of the United States, Blase is archbishop of Chicago and Francis pope of the Universal Church. He calls us now in the difficulties of our lives, with our hardships and struggles. He calls us now, with our vices and addictions to repent and accept the Gospel. He calls us now to prepare our hearts to accept the Lord. He calls us to remove the clutter from our lives so that room may be prepared in our hearts for Christ.
There is no separation between the spiritual and the historical in the Christian faith. Jesus’ Gospel is authoritative because He really lived, really died and, really rose again. His seven Sacraments have power because Jesus the historical figure instituted them. These mysteries are saving because they are signs of what are to be rooted in what actually happened, when Pontus Pilate was procurator of Judea, Tiberius was princeps and Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee. He is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, who will return again. May we be ready, prepared, and joyful at his coming.