“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.
This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 3:15–16, 21–22:
The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
One of my favorite hymns to sing when I was in my church choir was based on our first reading today from the prophet Isaiah, “A Voice Cries Out.” The lyrics adjust for meter and rhyme, but they come straight out of Isaiah 40:
Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed, she has received from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by a strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.
It’s worth considering the circumstances of this prophecy when thinking about today’s Gospel reading. Isaiah told of this forgiveness after repentance and preparation before the first exile of both Israel and Judah. Shortly after Isaiah’s days, the northern kingdom falls, but the southern kingdom — to which Isaiah’s prophecies were primarily directed — would not fall for centuries. In those days, the Promised Land of both kingdoms faced dangers, but had not yet fallen, let alone required a rebirth. The prophecy in retrospect seems clear, but in the times in which Isaiah prophesied, it must have seemed unthinkable that the Lord would allow either to fall, let alone both, especially with the Temple in Jerusalem.
Of course, that is exactly what happens. Jeremiah would be the final voice crying out at the fall of the southern kingdom, after long years of warning that the Lord would allow Judah’s enemies to crush it for its idolatry and wickedness, both towards the Lord and each other. Even the Temple would be crushed, as the Lord told Jeremiah, for it had become more of an idol than a place of covenant. Even in his final days in Jerusalem, though, Jeremiah also comforted the Judeans with the promise that chastisement would end and the Lord would wait for the people to return to Him. Babylon the crusher will become crushed, and the Lord’s people would return to their land to resume the covenant that they had broken.
Jeremiah and Isaiah are speaking in this context of justice, but a justice that works in both directions. The Judeans and Israelites chose to set themselves above the Lord, and rejected the law that protected them. The Babylonians committed “evils” in their sacking of Jerusalem, and therefore also endured the justice of their destruction. Those raised high were brought low in Jerusalem, and then the same thing happened in Babylon. The Lord’s justice and mercy endured for those who remained faithful or returned to that relationship of faithfulness.
John, the final prophet, becomes that voice crying out in the wilderness once more. He removes himself to the desert and urges people to repent now and be baptized. Why? He wants them to prepare for another season of justice and destruction — but also great salvation. Within 40 years or so of John’s prophesying, Jerusalem will once again fall and a mighty empire will scatter God’s people. In fact, this is a much shorter time than the warning that Isaiah tried to give, and roughly similar to the time frame of Jeremiah’s start as prophet to the fall of Jerusalem. Jeremiah began his mission in a similar manner, calling “faithless Israel” to repentance (Jeremiah 3:12-13):
Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say, ‘Return, faithless Israel, says the LORD. I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful, says the LORD; I will not be angry for ever. Only acknowledge your guilt, that you rebelled against the LORD your God and scattered your favors among strangers under every green tree, and that you have not obeyed my voice, says the LORD.
As with both Jeremiah and Isaiah, John refers to the wickedness of the people and the Lord’s coming judgment. No longer could they rely on their birthright as descendants of Abraham, the Baptist warns in the passages prior to today’s Gospel reading, an echo of the Judeans’ reliance on the presence of the Temple as their protection against other nations they had joined in idolatry. “Bear fruits that befit repentance,” John exhorts, and then explains that those fruits relate to becoming instruments of the Lord’s mercy and justice:
And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
With that in mind, let’s look once again at the reading from Isaiah. The prophet exhorts Israel and Judah to “make straight .. a highway,” and that the valleys and mountains should be made equal. Only then would “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” It means that it will not only be the Lord who will — and should — dispense justice and mercy to make all men equal. It is a call to action, not just to put aside sin but to counter the effects of that sin through our own personal action to restore mercy and justice. We are not called to necessarily make extraordinary sacrifice; the teachings of John the Baptist emphasize that we are called to exemplify justice and mercy in the roles we already have.
That was the original mission of the Israelites after the Lord rescued them from their captivity in Egypt. They were to be a light to the nations, demonstrating the love and mercy of the Lord, to show the path to salvation in Him. They were called to be instruments of the Lord’s law, not to become a worldly power with all of the corruptions and evils that go with it. They lost their way, but the Lord sent a series of voices out into the wilderness to call His people back to their mission. John the Baptist becomes the final prophet pointing to the new Israel, the Kingdom of Jesus Christ and the church He establishes to become the new Jerusalem. The Jerusalem of old passes away, but the destruction facilitates the spread of Christ’s teachings and extends the Lord’s mercy around the world.
What does this tell us? We often become our own northern and southern kingdoms, settling for worldly achievement and desires at the cost of our relationship with the Lord. That path leads to destruction and exile from the Lord, but thankfully the path is always open for the truly repentant to return and to open ourselves to become once again instruments of the Lord’s justice and mercy. All we need to do is listen to the voice in the wilderness, calling us back to the love of the Lord above all other things. “Make straight a highway for God,” the hymn concludes, and that applies to every one of us.
Update: I’m back from church, and I see that a clumsy construction created confusion on the point I wanted to make; mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I’ve fixed it above and noted it in the comments below.
The front page image is St. John the Baptist Preaching, Mattia Preti (1613-1699). Now in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, CA.