Gospel reflection for the 2nd Sunday of Advent – Year C
Luke 3: 1-6
The voice of the Baptist still cries in the deserts of humanity today, which are — what are today’s deserts? — closed minds and hardened hearts. And [his voice] causes us to ask ourselves if we are actually following the right path, living a life according to the Gospel. Today, as then, he admonishes us with the words of the Prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” (v. 4). It is a pressing invitation to open one’s heart and receive the salvation that God offers ceaselessly, almost obstinately, because he wants us all to be free from the slavery of sin. But the text of the prophet amplifies this voice, portending that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (v. 6). And salvation is offered to every man, and every people, without exclusion, to each one of us. (…) God wants all of mankind to be saved through Jesus, the one mediator (cf. 1 Tim 2:4-6).
Therefore, each one of us is called to make Jesus known to those who do not yet know him. But this is not to proselytize. No, it is to open a door. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16), St Paul declared. If Our Lord Jesus has changed our lives, and he changes it every time we go to him, how can we not feel the passion to make him known to those we encounter…!? (…) But we must be courageous: lay low the mountains of pride and rivalry; fill in the ravines dug by indifference and apathy; make straight the paths of our laziness and our compromises.
Pope Francis, Angelus 6.12.2015
JOHN THE BAPTIST: PROPHET OF THE MOST HIGH
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:4-6,8-11; Luke 3:1-6
This Sunday’s Gospel is concerned entirely with the figure of John the Baptist. From the moment of his birth John the Baptist was greeted by his father as a prophet: “And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High because you will go before the Lord to prepare the ways for him” (Luke 1:76).
What did the precursor do to be defined as a prophet, indeed, “the greatest of the prophets” (cf. Luke 7:28)? First of all, in the line of the ancient prophets of Israel, he preached against oppression and social injustice. In Sunday’s Gospel we can hear him say: “He who has two tunics must give one to him who has none; and he who has something to eat must do likewise.”
To the tax collectors who so often drained away the money of the poor with arbitrary requests, he says: “Do not mistreat anyone or commit extortion” (Luke 3:11-14). There are also the sayings about making the mountains low, raising up the valleys, and straightening the crooked pathways. Today we could understand them thus: “Every unjust social difference between the very rich (the mountains) and the very poor (the valleys) must be eliminated or at least reduced; the crooked roads of corruption and deception must be made straight.”
Up to this point we can easily recognize our contemporary understanding of a prophet: one who pushes for change; who denounces the injustices of the system, who points his finger against power in all its forms – religious, economic, military – and dares to cry out in the face of the tyrant: “It is not right!” (Matthew 14:4).
But there is something else that John the Baptist does: He gives to the people “a knowledge of salvation, of the remission of their sins” (Luke 1:77). Where, we might ask ourselves, is the prophecy in this case? The prophets announced a future salvation; but John the Baptist does not announce a future salvation; he indicates a salvation that is now present. He is the one who points his finger toward the person and cries out: “Behold, here it is” (John 1:29). “That which was awaited for centuries and centuries is here, he is the one!” What a tremor must have passed though those present who heard John speak thus!
The traditional prophets helped their contemporaries look beyond the wall of time and see into the future, but John helps the people to look past the wall of contrary appearances to make them see the Messiah hidden behind the semblance of a man like others. The Baptist in this way inaugurated the new Christian form of prophecy, which does not consist in proclaiming a future salvation (“in the last times”), but to reveal the hidden presence of Christ in the world.
What does all of this have to say to us? That we too must hold together those two aspects of the office of prophet: On one hand working for social justice and on the other announcing the Gospel. A proclamation of Christ that is not accompanied by an effort toward human betterment would result in something disincarnate and lacking credibility. If we only worked for justice without the proclamation of faith and without the regenerative contact with the word of God, we would soon come to our limits and end up mere protestors.
From John the Baptist we also learn that proclamation of the Gospel and the struggle for justice need not remain simply juxtaposed, without a link between them. It must be precisely the Gospel of Christ that moves us to fight for respect for human beings in such a way as to make it possible for each man to “see the salvation of God.” John the Baptist did not preach against abuses as a social agitator but as a herald of the Gospel “to make ready for the Lord a people well prepared” (Luke 1:17).
[Translation by ZENIT]
by Fernando Armellini
The chronological reference with which Luke begins his account (vv. 1-2) is precise and important because it allows us to date the beginning of Jesus’ public life. In Palestine the year begins on October 1 and then the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius is between 1 October of 27 A.C. and 30 September of 28 A.C., a date that fits perfectly with John 2:20.
Luke wants to make it clear to everyone that he is not telling a story, an esoteric myth born from fantasy and eccentric imagination of a dreamer. He is referring to concrete facts. The intervention of God in human history happened in a time and in a well-defined place. However, if the evangelist’s goal was only to indicate the starting date of Jesus’ public life, he could stop after this first indication. He instead continues and adds others. He indicates the names of the governors of Palestine and of the neighboring territories and those of the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. In all seven characters and to arrive at this figure he must insert also Annas who was high priest for thirteen years but not any longer, although he continues to play an important role.
The number 7 clearly has a symbolic meaning: that of totality. Along with the names and functions of persons mentioned, it indicates that all of history—sacred and secular, Jewish and pagan—is involved in the incident that is being told. It is a beginning that concerns all peoples and all the civil and religious institutions.
After the historical introduction, the first character, the Baptist, enters the scene: “The word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah in the desert” (v. 2). These are the words with which the Old Testament presented the vocation of the great prophets (Jer 1:1,4).
It all starts in the desert (v. 2), a place full of memories and deep emotional resonance for the Israelites. In the desert they have learned many lessons: they have learned to break away from all that is superfluous because it is an unnecessary burden to carry along the way; they learn to be in solidarity and to share their goods with the brothers; they have learned, above all, to trust God.
At the time of Jesus, it is in the desert that those who want to repeat the experience of their spiritual fathers withdraw. They are those who want to escape the hypocrisy of a religion of formalism and purely exterior practices. Those who reject the corrupt, unjust and oppressive society installed on their land go to live in the desert. Among these “contesting” people, there is also John the son of Zechariah (Lk 1:80).
Luke does not say anything about his style of dress. He does not talk about his food, but, from what Matthew tells us (3:4), we know that the Baptist did not use the long white robe of the priests of the temple. He wore a rough habit, as the prophet Elijah did (2 K 2:13-14). He was not eating the éproducts of the city; he fed on what the desert spontaneously offered. The Baptist wanted to be and to appear a stranger in his own land. He was an Israelite, but his behavior clearly distinguished him from his countrymen.
Like John, even Christians in the world, live the spirituality of the desert. In a world where recourse to violence, retaliation and even war is considered normal, they speak only words of peace and forgiveness. In a world where those who hoard goods and exploit the weakest are proclaimed blessed, they announce free service to the poor and sharing. In a world where pleasure is sought at all costs, they preach renunciation and self-giving.
From the desert, the place of his vocation, John moves to the region of the Jordan. He travels far and wide proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His preaching—it is good to anticipate it right away to not misunderstand some of his expressions—was a message of joy and consolation to all, as Luke wants to underline a few verses later (Lk 3:18).
In ancient times the Jordan River—which crosses a desolate region—never had any importance as a communication link (not navigable) nor for irrigation. No major city is built along its banks. Its importance has always been that of being a boundary between different peoples. To take possession of the Promised Land, Israel, who came out of Egypt, had to cross it (Jos 3).
The Baptist chose this border territory for his mission. In the rite of baptism that he administers, he wants everyone to repeat the act of entering, crossing the Jordan, into the land of freedom. He wants to prepare a people prepared to accept the salvation of God, ready to enter into the true Promised Land. For that he asks everyone to take resolute decision to radically change how one thinks and lives.
To clarify the role that John has to play, Luke cites a phrase of the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (v. 4).
One cannot but notice a contradiction to what we heard in the first reading. There Baruch said: “For God resolved to bring low every high mountain, to fill up the valleys and level out the ground, that Israel may walk in safety” (Bar 5:7). His was a confident hymn to salvation that God would certainly accomplish.
Instead, in the book of oracles of the prophet Isaiah, the Israelites are asked to prepare themselves the way of the Lord. The prophet directs to them the invitation to commit themselves to lower every hill and pave the rough places. Salvation comes from God and it is his work, but it can be obtained only by those who remove the obstacles to his coming.
The two prophets do not contradict but complement each other. The first emphasizes the irresistible work of God’s love. God—he says—will succeed, however, with his faithful love, to bring his people out of the land of slavery to freedom (Bar 5:7-9). He is like a man madly in love: no obstacle is insurmountable for him along the path that leads to the encounter with the woman he loves. There is no mountain so high, no valley so deep and dark that could prevent him from realizing his dream of love.
The second prophet emphasizes instead the work of man. It is true that the success of God’s love is still assured, but man can lose so many moments, so many days, so many years of happiness and joy away from his Lord. This is why it is urgent that he opens his heart, removes soon all obstacles to the meeting with him.
Unlike the other evangelists who only quote a verse from Isaiah, Luke continues the quote: “The valleys will be filled and the mountains and hills made low. All flesh* will see the salvation of God” (vv. 5-6). If he also adds these verses he considers them important. Let us grasp the reason.
The valleys to be filled, the mountains to level out, the hills to make low, and the crooked ways to make right and inaccessible places to smooth out are undoubtedly intended not in a material sense, but as symbols of another reality.
In biblical language the mountains and the hills are pride, haughtiness, arrogance of those who want to impose, dominate on others (see Is 2:11-17). The kingdom of God is incompatible with these haughty and arrogant attitudes. It cannot get to where the competitive spirit reigns, where one tries in every way to overwhelm the other, where castes are accepted, where bows, prostrations, respects, curtsies are required. Only those who accept the reverse logic enters the new world: the gift of self, the humble mutual service, seeking the last place. “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant” (Lk 22:26).
Then there are the depths to fill. They are the scandalous economic inequalities denounced by the prophets.
Finally the crooked paths are astuteness, senseless choices, unjust situations that need to be reviewed and brought in line with the ways of God. “Is my position wrong? Is it not rather that yours is wrong?” (Ezk 18:25).
The Baptist requires a radical conversion. How to hope that man can carry it out?
If we understand the meaning of the prophet’s words, as verbs in the form of a command (“be filled”, “be lowered down”, “be straight”), as if they were an injunction, it is man who, through his efforts and commitment, must realize the huge enterprise. So we have strong reasons to believe that it will never be brought to completion.
In fact, in the original Greek text, the verbs are in future passive: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked paths will be straight ….”
So, let’s face it with joy! The question changes. It is not about orders given by God but about his promise. The world based on new principles will rise, although it may seem like a mirage to people and it will be my work.
The last part of the quote is particularly important: All flesh will see the salvation of God! (v. 6). Not “every man”, but “all flesh”—says the original text. In the biblical sense, meat are not the muscles, but the whole person considered in his appearance of being weak, fragile, exposed to so many failures. Man is flesh because he gets sick, makes mistakes, suffers loneliness and abandonment, grows old and dies. Here then is the promise: in every man’s weakness God’s salvation will manifest itself; there will be no abyss of guilt so deep and dark that will not be visited and enlightened by his love.
Luke places this statement at the beginning of his Gospel. He chooses it almost as the title of his work because it contains a solemn declaration: God does not reserve his salvation to some privileged people, but wants it to be offered to all. No one will be excluded.
It is an echo of the prophecy of Simeon: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you display for all the people to see, the light you will reveal to the nations” (Lk 2:30-32).
[*In the biblical sense, ‘flesh’ are not the muscles, but the whole person considered in his appearance of being weak, fragile, exposed to so many failures. A man is flesh because he gets sick, makes mistakes, suffers loneliness and abandonment, grows old and dies. Here then is the promise: in every person’s weakness God’s salvation will manifest itself; there will be no abyss of guilt so deep and dark that will not be visited and enlightened by his love.]