Second Sunday in Advent – December 7, 2003 – Blessed Sacrament
Of all the Gospels St. Luke’s has the fullest awareness of the public character of what God had done in Jesus Christ. He is the only evangelist to have written a second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, to tell the story of the spread of the Gospel beyond the geographical and the cultural boundaries of Israel; it ends with the arrival of St Paul in the capital of the Roman Empire, Rome. This interest in the history that shaped Christianity and in the history that Christianity shaped is already evident in the words with which he introduces his Gospel narrative of the events surrounding the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, the words we heard today. Listen to them again: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Calaphas”–Listen to all that and you know something significant is about to be announced, and here it is: “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”
“The word of God came”–we may not regard that as very significant; after all, we hear the phrase “Word of God” twice every Mass, and murmur our “Thanks be to God” after it. But it would have meant something far more significant for Jews of Jesus’ time. Many of them considered the age of the prophets long over; the Psalms cry out to God, asking for a word: “How long, O Lord?” The return of the word of God was a hope for the age of the Messiah. Luke is speaking to this longing and expectation when he announces, so solemnly, that “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”
The portrait of John that Luke presents continues the theme. John invokes the prophetical announcement of Isaiah that God’s salvation is coming and a highway for his glorious return should be built. Even after Israel’s return from exile, the metaphor was the vehicle for the later prophet Baruch, whose reading we heard first today, who recognized that even in their homeland Israel suffered from an exile. The day is near, he says, when Jerusalem should put off her mourning-clothes and put on the splendor of God’s glory; she should go up on the heights and see her children returning. Hills should be leveled and gorges filled in for this glorious return, and in the barren desert forests will shelter the people as God’s mercy and justice accompany them.
The Church hears these themes during the Advent season. She is now Jerusalem, the one who can turn from mourning to joyful expectation that the salvation of God is near. Sometimes people find it difficult to enter into the spirit of Advent, and they see it as somewhat artificial, almost as if we were expected for a couple of weeks to forget that Christ has come. That is not the point, of course, but were we tempted to think so, these readings today might impress upon us that we should not take the presence of Christ for granted. There was a time when the return of the word of God was considered worthy of solemn awe–“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar…” There was a time when what that word announced was news as joyful as the news that an exile is over, and that a people are welcoming their children home. Is it not a good thing to have a season during which to try to let the novelty, the unexpectedness, the free giftedness, of Jesus Christ strike us again, sink in, to let it move us, even us, to awe and joy? What an idea–that this Mass should be celebrated by you and me with awe and joy!