The readings today throb with a sense of joyful expectation. The prophet Baruch echoes a hope for release from exile and oppression by portraying Lady Jerusalem as a priest who takes off the robes of mourning and puts on the cloak of God’s justice and the miter that displays the glory of God’s name. God will bring the people back to Jerusalem and will lead Israel in joy. Psalm 126 is a joyous song of ascent, sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem; and in writing to his favorite community at Philippi, Paul prays that they be filled with joy as they await the day of Christ.
The Advent Gospels for all three Lectionary cycles highlight John the Baptist and Mary as figures of joyful expectation of the coming of Christ, yet each has its own particular slant. After the parallel stories of the conception and births of John and Jesus, and the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, Luke adds a second and solemn introduction to the ministry of Jesus. Following the style of ancient historians, he dates the appearance of John according to the ruling powers. It is the 15th year of Tiberius (A.D. 28), Augustus’ successor, who was strongly anti-Jewish. Luke names Pontius Pilate, who was governor of Judea, three client kings, who served at Rome’s pleasure, and the high priests Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas (who was the high priest in office, while Annas remained the power behind the office). Luke’s readers would have known of the brutality of the Roman rulers and that Jesus was crucified under these same powers.
The rhythm of these cadences prepares the reader for some earth-shaking imperial event, only to be caught up short by the simple statement that the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the desert. Luke shifts from the style of royal chronicle to the call of a prophet. The coming of the word of God is a standard formula for a prophetic call, in this case to John as he prepares the way for Jesus, just as this word came to Mary at the Annunciation. John emerges in the desert, the wilderness, which evokes Israel’s journey from Egyptian slavery to freedom and is also the place where the covenant was inaugurated. He preaches and proclaims a ceremony of immersion that is to symbolize interior repentance leading to forgiveness.
But for Luke, who puts the extended quotation of Is. 40:3-5 on the lips of John, John’s more important task is to prepare the way of (or for) the Lord so that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Having begun the section with a list of rulers who did not bring wholeness or salvation, Luke ends with the expectation of a true Lord who can bring these about. Mary’s prophecy begins to unfold: rulers will be thrown down from their thrones, while the lowly are exalted.
Luke also stresses that both John and Jesus are immersed in a particular people’s history in a world-historical context. Luke’s readers are to find God in historyfirst in the history of Jesus and then, in Acts, in the history of the expanding church.
The church today faces a similar challenge as it prepares every year for the coming of Christ. Luke’s perspective that all flesh shall see God’s salvation is captured by the memorable beginning of the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World: The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflictedthese too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.
The document goes on to say that the church must read the signs of the times and recognize and understand the world in which we live, its expectations, its longings, and its often dramatic characteristics.
Today, when the ruling powers, whether political figures or multinational corporations, seem as impervious to the Gospel as Luke’s monarchs, the season of expectation can still be a season of prayer that God’s word will again raise up prophets who cry prepare the way with a deep hope that God will lead us by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company (Bar. 5:9).