The Baptist's message:
Hope and Conversion
by Fr. Robert Wagner
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Luke writes to explain that
Christ came to save everyone.
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 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 way made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."
At the start of our Gospel reading this Sunday, St. Luke offers the historical background of the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry, which historians would place between 27 and 29 AD. It was the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was the tetrarch of Galilee.
These details confirm that St. Luke is describing actual events, and not a myth. He is not saying, “Once upon a time,” but instead he places John the Baptist and Jesus Christ within our history. Jesus became man to teach us, to heal us, and most of all to save us from sin and death. It is a historic event, just as is the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Washington Redskins victory in Super Bowl XXVI. Yes, these all seem like they took place a long time ago, but we know them to be a real part of our past.
We recall these events during the Advent season. Primarily, we recognize Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas, yet each year, the Sunday Gospels of the first two weeks focus not on the events leading up to the birth of Jesus, but instead they call us to the conversion that is inspired by our making ourselves ready to encounter him.
In the first Sunday of Advent, we hear of our impending encounter with Jesus at our death at the Second Coming of Our Lord. In the second week of Advent, we meet the last and greatest of the prophets, John the Baptist. John first met our savior while both were in the womb when Elizabeth greeted the Virgin Mother at the Visitation.
“For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy,” said the mother of John the Baptist to the mother of our savior (Lk 1:44). From before his birth, John announced the coming of the savior.
In this Sunday's Gospel, we encounter John as an adult, fulfilling his mission and offering hope to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death (Lk 1:79). His is a message of joy, foretold by his leaping in the womb at their first meeting. Our sins shall finally be forgiven. Our salvation is at hand. This proclamation of the coming of the savior is meant to inspire us not only to hope, but also to conversion. As John the Baptist calls us to rejoice, he also tells us to prepare to meet our savior.
We can compare this to the cooking and cleaning that occurs before guests come for a holiday, offering our best to those who arrive. But we also must recognize it as something more than the arrival of a beloved guest. Jesus is God, who comes to offer salvation and eternal life. We want to do more than welcome him. We want him to stay with us always, to make his home in our heart and transform us through his grace so that we may have peace, joy and freedom in this life and the next.
Therefore, we straighten the paths, fill the valleys and lower the hills in our lives to speed his coming. We remove the obstacles of sin and try to release ourselves from worldly attachments so we can cling to our savior.
As such, we should recognize Advent as a time of conversion, similar to Lent. While the practice of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not commonly associated with Advent, they can help us make straight the paths that lead to our hearts, and make a clean, safe place for Our Lord to rest there. We may think of these disciplines as contrary to the joy of the season, they are, in fact, the means of intensifying that joy through the removal of what prevents us from welcoming our savior.
May we heed the voice of John the Baptist announcing the hope of the world and calling us to prepare the way. Let us have a place for our savior to dwell this Advent season and always.
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