Several Advent themes are highlighted in today’s readings: how Jesus’ first Coming was prepared by the words of the prophets, how we are to wait in hope for his Second Coming. In the Gospel, John the Baptist who is especially associated with Advent as he ‘prepared the way’ for Jesus.
Baruch is not often heard, and for background I used the study by Aloysius Fitzgerald, FSC, in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary. This book is not in the Hebrew Bible, but known from Greek texts, and are part of the ‘Deuterocanonical’ books accepted as scripture by Catholics and Orthodox Christians. The form of the book attributes it to a disciple of Jeremiah writing during the Exile in Babylon, but there are some dating oddities and at least some parts may have been composed later.
It was in 597 BCE that the Babylonians conquered the territory of Israel-Judah and took the leaders with a lot of the population back to their capital. These captives were released when Darius King of Persia overcame the Babylonians and let the Jews go to rebuild the Temple and Jerusalem. The prophets of the time reacted with joy, crediting God for their rescue, and this selection from Baruch expresses that. Baruch borrows the tone and images of Second Isaiah whose writings are more frequently quoted, as in today’s Gospel.
Our selection is a joyful call to the exiles promising them a return to the homeland. The liturgy applies this joy to the coming of Jesus. The bondage of exile then can be seen as symbolic of the bondage of sinfulness for which John the Baptizer, as the one coming before Jesus, calls for repentance.
This short song expresses the joy of those who returned from the exile. The Jerusalem Bible says the joy of the exiles ‘prefigures’ the joy of the Messianic age that is coming with Christ. Christians have always found texts of the Old Testament which give insight into the life and teaching of Jesus.
Philippians 1:6, 8-11
The church at Philippi was especially close to St Paul, and his letter to them is full of affection, as shown in our selection. A refrain of this letter is ‘joy’ or ‘rejoice’. The ‘Day of Christ’ is another way of expressing the ‘Second Coming’ and living a life in preparation for that should be as important for us as for Paul’s converts.
All four Gospels see John the Baptist as the one who prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus, and all use the same quotation from the prophet Second Isaiah. Each, writer, however has their own emphasis and details. Luke has a special interest in John, and before this section has opened his account with the unusual circumstances of his birth. Luke 1:2-25 tells how his birth was foretold to Zachary, a priest of the Old Law when his wife was thought to be too old to conceive a child. Verses 56-79 tell the story of his birth and the excitement that it aroused. In 1:80, Luke says John was in the wilderness (or desert) ‘until he appeared openly’, and that is where we find him, as our reading begins.
Only Luke starts with a solemn setting of time and social setting for the emergence of John. Dating by the reign of a Roman Emperor was typical of classic historians. Unfortunately for those who want an equivalent in our dating system, there is confusion in the records for the starting year of Tiberius’ reign. A suggestion for Luke’s date is around 28 AD.
Along with Luke’s desire for accuracy and order (as stated in his opening dedication) there may be a subtle point being made. Nicholas King (in his typically lively style) describes them ‘as unwholesome a collection of brigands as you could wish to meet on a dark night.’ Several of them, like Herod, Annas and Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, will reappear later in Luke as in opposition to John and Jesus. In their various ways, they are the kind of people John the Baptist called ‘family of poisonous snakes.’ (Luke 3:7) These are the people seen as important in their time and in their own view. What is significant in God’s judgment is different, as Luke will make clear as he continues his Gospel. A hermit in the desert is far more significant than the whole list of rulers. In the gospels there are other examples of ‘the world turned upside-down’.
Luke identifies him as ‘John son of Zachary’ referring back to his birth story. ‘The word of God came to…’ was used of the Old Testament prophets to indicate they spoke as they heard God speak to them. Zachary’s hymn at his birth predicts that his son will be ‘a prophet of the Most High’ and now he is shown taking up that role.
Second Isaiah, whose words start in Chapter 40 of the book Isaiah, was a prophet of the return from Exile. These words (40:3-5) originally referred to preparing a way through the desert through which God would lead the returning exiles. In the original Hebrew, it would have originally understood as ‘A voice cries, ‘in the wilderness, prepare a way’. The Voice would have been heard by the prophet, telling him to ‘cry out’ the message. In the Greek version, John is the ‘A voice crying in the wilderness’, and his message is ‘prepare the way’ for God was leading the people out of exile. Now Jesus is seen as the ‘Lord’ for whom the way is prepared. The New Testament writers were creative in applying texts to show how Jesus (and here John as well) were ‘fulfilling’ God’s saving works and words which had begun in the past revelations.
Only Luke continues the quotation, with the poetic description of flattened mountains and rough roads were made smooth. That has a metaphorical meaning here rather than literal. Most important for Luke is the last line he includes from the prophet: ‘All people shall see the salvation of God.’ A special emphasis of this gospel is the universal redemption Jesus brings, God’s call not only just for the Jews.