The Book of Baruch is a beautifully poetic biblical text that takes us back to the period of the Exile, a time of darkness for Israel. They are a broken people, far from their homeland, which was ravaged by the Babylonians. Just before our reading, desolate Jerusalem speaks as a mother to her lost children. She recognizes their suffering from afar and charges them with courage and faith (4:9-29).
Now, in our first reading, the prophet speaks to her: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning; put on the splendor of glory from God forever.... Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children…for God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory.”
Look to the east: that is, look out at your children coming home in glory from exile. Jeremiah had prophesied God’s intent to re-establish Israel in peace: “For I know well the plans I have in mind for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare, not for woe! Plans to give you a future full of hope” (Jer 29:11). As we know, Israel’s return from exile was as shaky as it was glorious. That is the human condition. Still, it was astonishing. Look to the east and see God’s glorious salvation.
That historical moment both testifies to God’s love for a broken people and foreshadows the coming of his glorious son. This foreshadowing brings us to the Gospel reading. Luke describes how John the Baptist prepares for the Lord by “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” thereby fulfilling what was written in the Book of Isaiah (40:3-5). John becomes “A voice crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord...and all flesh will see the salvation of God.’” This passage, which initially referred to the return of the exiles, is now used to describe the fullness of that salvation in Christ.
John is a brilliant transition figure from the Old Covenant to the New. In his person, he encapsulates the whole prophetic anticipation of God’s salvation for Israel. He is the Elijah figure prophesied by Malachi: “Now I am sending to you Elijah the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes” (3:23); for John had the “spirit and power of Elijah” (Lk 1:17).
John is unnerving, as all prophets of repentance are. The story goes that when a commissioned statue of John the Baptist arrived at a certain Benedictine abbey in the United States some 50 years ago, several of the monks did not like the fact that he looked so unnaturally gaunt and grave. The abbot is said to have remarked, “I suspect that the reason you don’t like it is that it vividly reminds you of a life you abandoned long ago.” Whether apocryphal or not, the story points us to a man unwavering in his demand for repentance.
Yet John is ultimately a presence of hope and light. To those willing to listen and be baptized, he pointed metaphorically to the east, toward the rising sun, where a new era was emerging. Repentance is really all about hope. It is a purification in anticipation of union. As Jesus promised, the pure of heart will see God (Mt 5:8). John leads us to the Lord and thus our salvation. In this sense, we are Jerusalem, still in too much darkness, still being called to look east.
Advent is a time when the spirit of John the Baptist calls us to purification and prayer. His is a baptism, Luke tells us, of metanoia. The word literally means a turn-around. Of course, the turning here is a turning from sin. Metanoia is a good image also for turning from gloom to joy, from desperation to anticipation, from darkness to the light of the world.
We should let John the Baptist take charge of us this Advent, unnerving as he is. We should let him encourage us to purify our hearts. And we should listen to the invitation he and the whole prophetic tradition offers: turn around to look east.