Dec 6, 2015: 2nd Sunday of Advent (C)

Prepare the way of the LordMake straight his paths

1st Reading – Baruch 5:1-9

Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever:
wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,
bear on your head the mitre
that displays the glory of the eternal name.
For God will show all the earth your splendor:
you will be named by God forever
the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship.

Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights;
look to the east and see your children
gathered from the east and the west
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that they are remembered by God.
Led away on foot by their enemies they left you:
but God will bring them back to you
borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones.
For God has commanded
that every lofty mountain be made low,
and that the age-old depths and gorges
be filled to level ground,
that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.
The forests and every fragrant kind of tree
have overshadowed Israel at God’s command;
for God is leading Israel in joy
by the light of his glory,
with his mercy and justice for company.

Today’s first reading comprises the entire fifth chapter of the book of Baruch.  The exact dating and authorship of Baruch is unknown, but the reality it addresses is clear.  Jersusalem had fallen, sacked by Nebuchadnezzar.  The book was written in exile, sent from the far kingdom of Babylon.  It is filled with poetic imagery that depicts a dramatic reversal of fortune for Jerusalem and her people.

Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery;

Jerusalem is depicted as a grieving mother, her children carried off by enemies into captivity.  With no future in sight for the family, she is faced with extinction.  Accordingly, she wears the garments of grieving.

put on the splendor of glory from God forever: Wrapped in the cloak of justice from God, bear on your head the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name.

Her attire is completely altered: the bereavement garb is removed and she is clothed with God’s glory and justice.  She wears an imposing miter similar to the one worn by Aaron, the high priest (Exodus 28:36-37; 39:30-31).

For God will show all the earth your splendor: 

The transformation will allow all the earth to see the new splendor of the city, not just the Jewish people.

you will be named by God forever the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship.

The name Jerusalem means “foundation of peace.”  Here, the city is given a new name: “the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship.”  (Theosébeia, translated here as “glory,” might be better translated as piety or reverence for God, hence the mention of worship.)

The new name suggests that Jerusalem’s new peace is grounded in justice.

Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights; look to the east

The east is the direction in which the sun rises, and according to tradition, the direction from which salvation will arrive.

and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God.

A second reversal of fortune, this time for the children of Jerusalem.  Those that she was mourning have been saved and are returning home.

Led away on foot by their enemies they left you: but God will bring them back to you borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones.

The exiles were led away on foot into captivity, but they will be carried back on royal thrones.

Isaiah described something similar: See, I will beckon to the nations, I will lift up my banner to the peoples; they will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their hips. —Isaiah 49:22

For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.  The forests and every fragrant kind of tree have overshadowed Israel at God’s command;

The path home of the Israelites will be leveled, to create the easiest and most direct march.  The contour of the world will be transformed for their sake; even the trees will shelter them as they return.  (See Isaiah 40:3-4.)

For God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company.

Along with the gifts of glory and justice, God also grants mercy.  No explicit reason is given for this remarkable magnanimity; God’s providence is beyond our understanding.

2nd Reading – Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11

Brothers and sisters:
I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you,
because of your partnership for the gospel
from the first day until now.
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.
God is my witness,
how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer:
that your love may increase ever more and more
in knowledge and every kind of perception,
to discern what is of value,
so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,
filled with the fruit of righteousness
that comes through Jesus Christ
for the glory and praise of God.

In today’s second reading, Paul urges the Philippian community, which was being besieged by external forces and internal divisions, to increase their love in preparation for the day of Christ.

Brothers and sisters: I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now.

The Christians in the Philippian community are very dear to Paul.  He commends them for the partnership, or community (koinōnía), which they’ve had since the first days of his founding of the church there.

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.

Although Paul brought the gospel to them, he acknowledges that it was God who made it take root in their hearts, and God will oversee its maturation until it is brought to completion at the second coming, “the day of Christ Jesus.”

For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

The Greek word translated as “affection” is splánchnon, the deepest interior feelings.  It denotes the inner organs, i.e., the bowels of the emotions.

This deep affection is really the love of Christ, expressing itself through Paul.

And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value,

The kind of love referred to here is agapē, a selfless love that is epitomized in the sacrificial love of Christ.

so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Paul’s prayer for the Phillipians is two-fold: that their love may increase, and that they will be pure and blameless before Christ.

This purity and blamelessness produces the fruit of righteousness: ethical living within a relationship with God.

We would miss most of the power of these high hopes and comforting words if we didn’t realize that Paul wrote them from prison.  His own outlook was bleak, but this letter to the Phillipians contains some of the most beautiful and inspirational passage he would ever write.

Gospel – Luke 3:1-6

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 Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

In today’s gospel reading, the prophet Isaiah is quoted to show how John the Baptist, a key symbol of Advent, prepares the people for Christ’s coming.

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 Caiaphas,

Luke’s account of the ministry of John the Baptist is steeped in imagery.  To keep it from being seen in merely symbolic terms, he outlines the context of the broader world in order to ground these events of salvation into world history.

He identifies the power structure in place at the time, beginning with the Roman emperor and continuing through a list of the regional authorities of Roman occupation and the Jewish religious leadership.  The names of these rulers are all ominous; they were mighty and dangerous leaders.

the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.

John was from a priestly family (Luke 1:5), yet he is found in the desert, not at the Temple.

He went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,

Luke describes John the Baptist as an itinerant preacher, moving throughout the desert.

This calls to mind the wandering of the people in the wilderness during the Exodus from Egypt.  The Jordan river was the gateway for the Israelites to the Promised Land (Joshua 3:14-17); their crossing the Jordan became a symbol of their covenant renewal and entrance into a new life.

proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,

In Jewish tradition, baptism was one of three requirements for becoming a Jew (the other two were circumcision and offering sacrifice).  It symbolized turning away from evil and/or the cleansing of sin.  Like crossing the Jordan, it marked the beginning of a new form of living.

The word here for repentance is metánoia: a conversion, a change of heart.

John grasps that the time is ripe.

as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’

A quotation from Isaiah 40:3-5.

When the Jews were held captive in Babylon, they were forced to build roads for their captors. Isaiah prophesied that a day would come when they would build a highway for God, to prepare the way for his coming.

Luke references this prophecy to suggest that John is the herald of the coming of the Lord.  Just as both the Exodus and the return from Babylonian exile involved crossing the desert, the eschatological renewal preached by John also begins in the desert.

This image of a single voice rising from the badlands, within the context of these fearsome and powerful rulers, is an interesting one.  Great nations have risen and fallen, dictators and high priests have come and gone.  Whose voice has survived?  What message has endured?  What reality is important?

It was the outsider, the baptizer, who addressed all of history.

Connections and Themes

  • All of today’s readings address a theme of radical transformation:
    • First Reading: The robe of mourning is replaced with the splendor of glory, tears turn to rejoicing, captives return, valleys are filled, mountains are leveled, winding roads are made straight.
    • Second Reading: Paul acknowledges the transformation of the Philippian community from foundling church into a “partnership for the gospel,” while continuing to pray for their ongoing perfection in Christ.
    • Gospel Reading: John preaches metánoia, the kind of transformation that leads to a complete change of heart.
  • The first reading proclaims Jerusalem, a real place, as the site of God’s restoration.  In the gospel reading, Luke goes to great pains to outline the setting of John’s ministry, including details about the time, place, and John’s specific identity (by mentioning Zechariah, his father).  God does not call us to renounce the realities of human life; to the contrary, he enters world history by taking on human life.  Further, God works within everyday life, in familiar places, during regular time.  The extraordinary events of salvation take place within the ordinary.
  • In a transformed world, those who are shameful and discarded are made glorious, those who suffer are comforted, those oppressed by sin are freed.  While Advent anticipates the celebration of a historical event (Christ’s birth) and the anticipation of a future event (his second coming), this promise of transformation is made to us in our time, in the present. Our metánoia occurs within the context of our own lives, in our own hearts — here and now.
  • The second reading speaks to the outcome of our metánoia, the fruits of living a life of genuine unselfish love.  This transformation is particularly evident in our relationships with people: people whom offend us, whom we have offended, or have been discarded by society.  Living a life of repentance does not mean trying to escape our own history, bur rather that we create a new history.  It requires that we live righteously here and now, with eyes of faith that see the transformative future of Christ’s coming embedded in the present.

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