Advent II / C / 2018
Msgr. Patrick S. Brennan
Last week—with the apocalyptic reading that spoke of the sun, moon, and stars falling from the sky—I spoke about the breakdown of the old world and the arrival of the new. When Jesus comes, all of the fixed stars have to give way, and something new must emerge. Today’s Gospel is a good example of this principle.
The Gospel is from St. Luke—Luke was a scholar writing in his own language, Greek, who understood the art of writing, of biography, and story. Luke’s Gospel stands out for its artistry, its beautiful language, its theology, and its skillful presentation of the life and story of Jesus.
Luke begins this third chapter in a way that was typical of good writing in the ancient world: he situates the Gospel in its historical milieu—naming the important political and religious players, the high and mighty at the time of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Tiberius Caesar of the great Roman empire; Pontius Pilate, Caesar’s governor in Judea; Herod and Philip, the Jewish leaders; Annas and Caiaphas, the high priests. All of them the most important civic and religious leaders—the high and mighty. Luke situates the Gospel in this world—these are all the "fixed stars" of his universe.
And then he pulls the rug out from under them. In a beautiful turn and contrast, Luke says that "the word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah, in the desert."
What? To someone named "John"? The son of Zechariah? Wouldn’t the "word of God" come to some important dignitary, in a palace or temple? But in the desert? A place of wilderness, demons, and death? To a man who wears animal skins and eats locusts and wild honey?
This is the artistry of Luke. Taking us by surprise. He is telling us not to look at the "fixed stars." Their day is passing away—they will fall from the skies. We must put our gaze where we least expect it—to a kind of oddball prophet with a message of repentance.
And what about that message from this unexpected prophet—what message does John the Baptist bring to us? The words are familiar, from Isaiah and Baruch:
Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
In other words, make a road in yourself to speed the coming of the Lord"—"a highway for our God." Let nothing get in the way!
Mountains and valleys slow us down. A straight, smooth road is needed.
The "mountains and valleys" are symbols—mountains are those things in our life that are exaggerated; and valleys are those things in our life that get little attention. Some things get too much prominence in our lives, and some things get too little.
So what are the mountains that preoccupy us? Our desire for power, pride, love of money, fame and fortune. Knock them down! And what are the valleys that we forget? Our prayer life, our love of neighbor, our good works, the corporal and spiritual works of mercy we perform. When you knock down mountains, you fill in the valleys.
Advent is a time to prepare the way. Out with the old. In with the new. Build that highway—and welcome the Lord!