St. John the Baptist and the Pharisees, Tissot, The Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA.
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A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths….” Luke 3:4
The gospel of Mark, the oldest and shortest, begins with John the Baptist; he also appears in all four gospels after reflections about other matters. Translation: he is a very important figure in the early Christian church. Luke expands on Mark, with an elaborate date and time procedure, then goes on to place John within the ancient prophecies, particularly from Isaiah: “A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…” (Isaiah 40:3). Prior to today’s gospel passage, Luke talked about the birth of both Jesus and John, Jesus’ youth, including the unique passage of the boy Jesus in the Temple sitting, listening and asking questions of the teachers there. So Luke inaugurates the “grown-up” stories of John and Jesus with John in the wilderness. He preached about baptism and repentance for sin. Something caught the imagination of the people of the time, because, as Luke puts it, “multitudes” came out to him to be baptized.
Now we are in the season of waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus, whereas John is preparing the multitudes for the arrival of the adult Savior. So perhaps the choice of gospel has a hidden meaning. I used to ask my students a simple question to try and get to the root of this meaning. I posited a situation: What would happen if your mother’s sister, your aunt, who lives far away and has not been seen for years, announced she was now able to come and visit? Well it did not take long to hear from them that mother would launch into a frenzy of house cleaning so that it would be immaculate by the time of the Grand Arrival. There was always a universal agreement on that one! It is my claim that that is what is going on here. We are waiting for the arrival of the baby in whom there is universal salvation and happiness. What are we going to do about that? Is my – our – your spiritual house in the right order to receive such a guest? Is there any rubbish to be cleaned out, stains to be removed, even furniture to be fixed? Are we spiritually ready for the arrival of Jesus? We have a few weeks to think about that one, and even more important, some time to do something about it. We can start small, with personal failings and weakness, move from there to family and friends, where forgiveness and love might be needed, to the larger world where we are called upon to be generous and sensitive to the needs of others who are suffering; what are we going to do about all that? Wouldn’t that be a suitable response to John’s cry for repentance and forgiveness? By December 25, can we welcome the infant with a conscience that is clear and calm? What a wonderful welcome for the Savior to find. Today’s second reading sums it up. St. Paul says: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). Then the words of the first reading will be fulfilled: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever…” (Baruch 5:1). What a clear, unequivocal way to approach the coming feast!
The Nativity Story (2006), New Line Cinema.