The Word in the Sunday Eucharist: Second Sunday in Advent.
Three captivating persons dominate the Advent liturgy; three persons who prepare in different ways for the coming of the Savior. One is the prophet Isaiah; he represents Israel’s yearning for the messianic king. A second figure is John the Baptist: he is the Messiah’s messenger, his herald, his forerunner. The third dominant figure is a soft-spoken lady in Nazareth. It is of John the Baptist that the Gospel speaks to us today.
The beginning of the Gospel sounds like the reading of a history document -and such it is. St. Luke gives us a clearly documented proof of the exact time of the Savior’s appearance in this world. This greatest, most important, outstanding fact of history stands unquestionable. The Gospel begins with historical numbers and figures, as if the inspired writer wanted to tell us: “Christians of the twentieth century, stand firm in your faith!” The evangelist places John the Baptist among the six major historical personalities of the time: Tiberius Caesar, the second emperor of Rome; Pontius Pilate, Rome’s governor in Judaea; Herod, the Jewish governor of Galilee; Phillip, Herod’s brother and governor of Trachonitis; Lysanias, governor of Abilene, and Caiphas, High Priest of the Jews. The evangelist puts John the Baptist in the company of the power elite of his age, because John as a prophet would alert his listeners of the arrival of the world Savior; his religious message would herald a change in the course of human and religious history.
Had St. Luke been writing his gospel today, he would be using the names of the Pope, the President, the Governor, and perhaps even the Mayor. But the message of the Baptist, in this realistic and historical context, would still be the same: The word of God is coming to us; the Lord is near, and we must prepare the way for him. As a matter of fact, the word of God comes to us in this liturgy just as certinly as it did to John the Baptist in the desert. That word tells us that the Lord is near and that we must prepare for his coming at Christmas, so that we may be prepared for his coming at the end of time. This is so because the Church teaches us that Advent is more than just a preparation for Christmas; it is also a preparation for the final coming of Christ. Everything we do now prepares us for the final coming. All of the joy and happiness, all of the good things we associate with Christmas, his first coming, will reach completion in the second coming, provided we are prepared by the religious life we live now.
Preparation, in John the Baptist’s message, means conversion and penance. Both are eminently personal options. Strictly speaking, one can only correct oneself; doing penance is one of those acts that cannot be delegated to others. No one can repent of my sins but myself. Advent is a time, then, that compels us to acknowledge our inadequacies, not tomorrow but today, now. To repent our sins now. To resolve to go to confession now, before Christmas is upon us. We cannot just stand around passively and wait for the coming of Jesus, John tells us. No, waiting for the Savior is a much more active process. Even the metaphors used by Isaiah seem to indicate this: Every valley shall be filled, every moutain and hill shall be leveled. The people who are fit for the Lord are those who go beyond lip service and actually produce the fruits of repentance.