As the days grow shorter before the great feast of the Nativity, it is sometimes hard to be “of good cheer.” Each week seems to bring news of more tragedy and disaster, of political conflict, war and rumors of war, not to mention economic hardship and the spread of contagion. Not much to celebrate — if we’re paying attention at all.
But the Sundays of Advent sound a different tone, one that the world needs right now. Scripture does not deny the sorrows and sufferings of life. But as we see in today’s readings, it offers an alternative to depression, desperation, and despair.
The joyful promise of today’s readings first calls on the prophet Baruch, son of Neriah, according to tradition the prophet Jeremiah’s scribe and a major compiler of the Hebrew scriptures. He appears to have been deported to Egypt with Jeremiah after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 or 586 BCE. Citing the passage from Isaiah we are so familiar with from its musical citation in Handel’s “Messiah,” Baruch looks forward to the return of the captives to Judah on a great broad highway: “For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low and that the ancient valleys and gorges filled to level ground that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God” [Bar 5: 7-9. See Is 40:3-4].
The responsory verses from Psalm 126 continue the theme of the joyful pilgrimage back to Jerusalem after decades of captivity in far-off Babylon, now southern Iraq. The passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi expresses the same longing as he looks forward to the return of Jesus in glory: “My prayer is that your love may more and more abound…so that with a clear conscience and blameless conduct you may learn to value the things that really matter, up to the very day of Christ” [Phil 1:8-9].
The gospel reading returns to the jubilant prophecy of Isaiah cited by Baruch, as Luke prepares us for his account of the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus himself. It is not only that John’s was a voice crying in the wilderness, but more accurately “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…” [Is 40:3]. Not only or even especially in the desert, but in the wilderness of our minds and hearts, so that we may “be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in us,” as Paul has it.
Luke is at pains to identify the moment at which John and then Jesus appear in the real wilderness of the Jordan valley, citing the custom of dating events from the accession of a king or emperor as no common calendar existed. The Emperor Tiberius Caesar, the stepson of Caesar Augustus, reigned from 14 CE until 37 – which would place the public appearance of both John and Jesus in the year 29 CE, which has become the standard by which most events in the Christian scriptures have been dated. That would make Jesus about 33 when he joined John at the Jordan River, the age favored by tradition.
Palestine was not enjoying a particularly peaceful period. The Pax Augustana had given way to a sense of oppression and growing resentment at the Roman occupation. In the preceding years, several revolts had been mercilessly crushed by the Roman army. Taxes were high. Injustice was commonplace. In the midst of the disquiet, John’s message was simple and clear – what was required was to change the way of thinking—”repentance,” a sorry translation of the term “metanoia.” He chose to signify this change of heart and heart by baptism.
Bathing in the famed Jordan River was not uncommon, and ritual baths could be found in towns and villages as well as the city of Jerusalem. Some sects such as the Essenes practiced baptism daily, as a sign of internal purification. John’s practice was different. No longer did those expressing their desire for renewal plunge themselves in the water, but John himself baptized them. After his death by martyrdom, John’s custom of baptizing was continued by his followers, including Jesus’ own disciples. It is the form that is still used today. Luke also points out that John’s baptism was not simply a rite of symbolic purification but led to the forgiveness of sins. It still does.
It is here that Luke turns to the prophecy of Isaiah, the fulfilment of the ancient promise. The pivot-point of the moral and spiritual history of the world has arrived.
In this year of so many sorrows, as the wonderful Feast of the Nativity of Jesus draws near, I am reminded of the splendid song from Jerry Herman’s great musical Mame, in which after losing her fortune in the Wall Street collapse of 1929 the irrepressible Auntie Mame wistfully proclaims, “We need a little Christmas”:
“For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older…”
As we face yet another season of uncertainty, sickness, and conflict, we don’t need more plastic junk under the so-called “holiday tree” or empty variety shows,
“… we need a little music,
Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing
Ringing through the rafter,
And we need a little snappy
‘Happy ever after,’
Need a little Christmas now.
In truth, we need a lot of Christmas. The whole world needs more Christmas, the real Christmas, the celebration of justice, peace, and love, of kindness and benevolence. That’s what Advent is about.