Central theme: The Second Sunday of Advent challenges us to prepare a royal highway in our hearts for Jesus so that we may receive Him as our saving God during Christmas. We should also be prepared for Christ’s daily coming into our lives in the Holy Eucharist, in the Holy Bible and in the praying community. Finally, we are asked to be ready to meet Christ as our Judge both at the end of our lives and at the end of the world when Jesus will come with power and great glory on the clouds of Heaven as Judge, bringing our waiting to its everlasting completion. The readings today invite us to recall God's saving deeds in the history of Israel, culminating in the coming of the promised Messiah.
Homily starter anecdotes: #1: Preparation for VIPs: When the President or Prime Minister of a country is scheduled to make a public appearance, his staff prepares weeks and even months in advance to make certain that the proper protocol will be observed, and the leader’s security will be assured. Similarly, detailed preparations precede the appearance of religious leaders like the Pope. Programs are scheduled, choral presentations are practiced, gifts are bought, and special persons are chosen to present them in the most gracious manner possible, so that the honored one is duly recognized and appreciated. Careful planning also accompanies the appearances of other political figures, celebrity entertainers and rock singers. When rock stars like Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen made a tour, elaborate preparations were made for their coming. If they came to the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan, for example, their entourage would arrive ahead of time to get things ready for their concert. Stages would be set; lighting would be adjusted, sound checks made; every care would be taken so that the needs and whims of each guest would be fully accommodated. In fact, one wonders if today’s Gospel about John the Baptist proclaiming the coming of Jesus applies more to modern rock stars than it does to the true Messiah. Only when we put the same care and commitment into our spiritual Christmas preparations that rock stars put into their musical performances will “all mankind begin to see the salvation of God.”
Scripture lessons summarized: Baruch, in the first reading, asks the grieving Jerusalem to stand on the heights in order to see her scattered children coming home, with God in the lead. This reminds us that all of us, like Israel in her exile, have been led into the captivity of sin. Hence, we are in need of restoration and conversion by the Word of the Holy One. Psalm 126 is a joyous song of ascent, sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. We see those who had gone into exile weeping now returning “rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.” In writing to his beloved community at Philippi, Paul, in today’s second reading, prays that they be filled with joy as they await the day of Christ. Paul reminds us that our remembrance of God’s saving deeds during the Advent season is meant to stir our Faith and to fill us with confidence so that, "the One who began a good work in us will continue to complete it," until Jesus comes again in glory. In the Gospel, John the Baptist challenges us to prepare the way for the salvation of "all flesh,” including our own, by a true repentance leading to the renewal of our lives. Fulfilling the Lord God’s words to Israel through Isaiah, John, by his preaching of repentance and a change of life is “the voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths…” For us, this command means that we are to prepare a royal road in our hearts for our Savior, a way out of the wilderness of sin and alienation, to God.
First reading, Baruch 5:1-9, explained: Enemies practically destroyed Jerusalem in 587 BC and deported many Jews to Babylon. Almost fifty years later (in 538 BC), Cyrus, the Persian emperor, defeated Babylon and decreed that the exiles could return to their homelands. Many Jews returned to Judah and Jerusalem. (Some stayed behind among the pagans; they became known as the Diaspora ("dispersion") Jews). Although all the exiles were cut off from the Temple and the sacrifices of the community, most of them remained faithful to their ancestral religion. They nourished their Faith with the teaching of God's word by prophets, scribes, and priests, primarily in their synagogue gatherings. They continued to feel their kinship with Judah's Jews and to express longing for Jerusalem and its Temple in their writings. The book from which we read today is ascribed to Baruch, the secretary of the prophet Jeremiah who accompanied the Jews to Babylon in their exile. The book voices a hope for release from exile and oppression by portraying “Lady Jerusalem,” who, like a priest, 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. Baruch’s words remind us that Advent is the suitable time for shedding the robes of selfishness and materialism in order to be clothed with the garments of mercy, kindness and justice. Baruch declares that the restored exiles will have a new name: "Peace of righteousness and glory of godliness." Then he shares with Isaiah 40:3ff this comforting image: Between the land of the Captivity and Jerusalem, the desert will be leveled, its mountains smoothed down and its valleys filled up, so that the returning exiles can travel with ease. In the original Isaiahian setting, the people exiled in Babylon were told that their God would lead them home, just as He had led their ancestors through the wilderness to the Promised Land. They were assured that all obstacles would be removed so that this could be accomplished. Isaiah's version is familiar to us in the form quoted by John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. [The book could also have been of great comfort to the Jews during the Persian period (500 - 300 BC), or the Hellenistic period (300- 50 BC), or to Jews living in Alexandria around 200 BC, offering them a vision of hope and optimism as they struggled to keep their Faith.] As the Babylonian exiles longed for a return to Jerusalem and the presence of God, so the people of God, during Advent especially, await Christ’s parousia so that we may return home to the Promised Land, the kingdom of God.
Second Reading, Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11, explained: This is another Pauline passage that warns the early Christians of the second coming of Jesus, referring to it as "the day of Christ" and "the day of Christ Jesus.” The passage stresses everyone’s need for that perpetual readiness to be found in leading a righteous life. Paul was very fond of the Philippian Christians and was very pleased with their spiritual progress and maturity. So, he assured them that their Heavenly Father, who had given them the gift of conversion, would continue to bring that "good work" to fruition. He would complete His work “at the day of Jesus Christ,” when Jesus would come in glory to judge the whole world, provided that the Philippians had done their part by “approving what is excellent” and remaining “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruits of righteousness.” By virtue of our Baptism in the Lord, we are all fully-equipped with every grace we need to cooperate with God's plan to get to Heaven. Moreover, our Lord provides us with the graces of the other Sacraments and other actual graces throughout our lives to better ensure that we have even more assistance in getting to our Heavenly homeland. Paul’s advice echoes the words of John the Baptist found in today’s Gospel, inviting the Jews to repent and renew their lives to welcome the Messiah.
Gospel exegesis: The historical context: Each year, the second and the third Sundays in Advent center on John the Baptist, reminding us that if we want to prepare properly for the coming of Jesus we need to listen to the Baptizer’s message. The Evangelists realized the importance of John’s message. Hence, all four of them wrote about John’s preaching, while only two of them described the nativity of Christ. Following the style of ancient historians, Luke dates the appearance of John according to the ruling powers. He begins by setting the emergence of John against a world background, the background of the Roman Empire. After referring to the world situation and the Palestinian political situation, he turns to the religious situation and reports John's emergence as a herald of the Messiah during the religious leadership of Annas and Caiaphas. Although Caiaphas was the reigning High-priest, it was Annas, his father-in-law and the retired High Priest, who was the religious power behind the throne of Galilee’s ruler at that time, Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great. “Because of all of the names mentioned here, we know that these events happen somewhere between September of 27 A.D. and October of AD 28.”  But aside from including these names to set the date for us, Luke includes them to show how far Israel had fallen. Politically, the Jews were ruled by foreigners, and religiously, Annas and Caiaphas had been illegally put into their positions by the Roman authorities, and constantly used their power to line their own pockets and increase their own authority. Annas was even sometimes called a viper who hissed or whispered in the ears of judges and politicians in order to influence their decisions.” (Alfred Edersheim: “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah”: New Updated Edition,1993). “The ‘coming of the word of God’ to someone is a standard formula for a prophetic call. In this case, the prophet was John, as he prepared the way for Jesus. The Baptizer proclaimed the coming of God’s Kingdom and preached a ceremony (a “baptism”), of immersion, as a response that was to symbolize the interior repentance that leads to forgiveness. The general consensus of Biblical scholars today is that John the Baptist began to preach in AD 28 or 29, and that Christ’s public ministry began that same year. The passage reminds us that we need not be somebody well known and of great influence to be used by God. God uses you and me, not the most prominent or popular. Let us just get on our knees, in prayer, with the Word of God before us, and take hope. God will use us.
Theme of John’s preaching: the baptism of repentance: John's baptism was not a proselyte baptism, converting Gentiles into Jews. In proselyte baptism, the Gentile would be immersed in a body of water (called a mikveh), to symbolize death and burial to his Gentile past, and then would be raised up from the water to symbolize being “born again,” raised to a new life as a Jew. This baptism symbolized turning from the past and turning toward a new life with God in the future. And what was repentance? It was a turning from the new Jew’s pattern of sin in the past and turning toward God. John’s baptism offered to Jews, was, thus extraordinary. It was a “baptism of repentance,” a baptism for the forgiveness of sins committed by those who were Jews already, and it required repentance (metanoeo, a change of being), which implied a turning around to proceed in a new direction True repentance is not just a 180 degree turn from the sin, but an all-out, full bore, frantic sprint back toward God. ["Our basic problem is a heart problem. We need to get the heart changed, the heart transformed" (Rev. Billy Graham).] John, then, was inviting the Chosen people to be purified of the unholy elements in their lives. Fulfilling the prophetic words of Isaiah, John the Baptist’ preaching assisted in ensuring that in the lives of everyone who was baptized, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth” (Lk 3:5). Isiah was referring to mountains of pride and arrogance and valleys of discouragement and despair. As with Baruch, John presents an image of the mountains and valleys being made flat and smooth as a sign of Israel’s repentance and moral transformation.
Preparing “the way” means to create a favorable environment or to make it easy for someone to come to one and operate in one’s life. The quotation which John’s work fulfills is taken from Isaiah 40:3-5, where the prophet was calling the people to prepare for the Lord's visitation. If a king were planning to travel, work crews would be dispatched to repair the roads. Ideally, the roads for the king's journey would be straight, level, and smooth. John considered himself as the courier of the king. But the preparation on which he insisted was a preparation of heart and of life. "The king is coming," he said in effect. “Mend, not your roads, but your lives.” The quotation, “making straight the paths of the Lord,” means clearing the path of sin, which is the major obstacle preventing the Lord from coming into our lives. The valley here stands for the estrangement of man from God.
John called people to repent as a way of preparing their hearts and lives for the Lord's visit. He is calling us, too, to get ready for something so great that it fills our emptiness with expectation. A smooth road means nothing to God, but a repentant heart means a great deal. Hence, the truly important goal for us is to prepare our hearts to receive the Lord. By emphasizing the last line of the quotation "All flesh will see the salvation of God," Luke stresses the universal aspect of God's salvation. 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. We don't live in a perfect world, and we don't look to this world to see God's salvation. For salvation, we have to look to Jesus -- Jesus present in Scripture, Jesus present in the Sacraments, Jesus present in our coming together in his name, Jesus present in the lives of his followers. Perhaps if we began to see Jesus in each other and in ourselves, and started to treat one another (and ourselves), as we would treat Jesus, more of the world might come to see God's salvation.
The symbolic significance of John’s preaching at the Jordan: The Jordan River was the place that represented the eastern border of the Promised Land, separating it from the desert — where the Jews had wandered aimlessly for 40 years after centuries of slavery in Egypt. By preaching his message there, John was inviting the Jews of his day to come out of the bondage of slavery, to leave their faults, their wandering and their sinful lives behind, and to enter into the Promised Land full of God’s blessings. The Fathers of the Church have called the Sacrament of Reconciliation our “second baptism,” in which we’re brought back to the Jordan and cleansed interiorly as we were on the day of our Christening. Advent, like Lent, is a season given to us so that we may repent of our sins and be reconciled with God and His Church by receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It was for this purpose that the Sacrament was instituted by Jesus after His Resurrection: “Receive the Holy Spirit: Those whose sins you forgive are forgiven; those whose sins you retain are retained” (Jn 20:18-22). It is for this on-going reconciliation, then, not just to “preach repentance and forgiveness of sins … to all nations beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk 24:47), that Jesus sent His apostles and their successors out to the ends of the world.
Life messages: #1: We need to prepare the way for the Messiah in our hearts: We have to fill in the “valleys” of our souls which have resulted from our shallow prayer life and a minimalist way of living our Faith. We have to straighten out whatever crooked paths we’ve been walking, like involvement in some secret or habitual sins or in a sinful relationship. If we have been involved in some dishonest practices at work or at home, we are called to straighten them out and make restitution. If we have been harboring grudges or hatred, or failing to be reconciled with others, now is the time to clear away all the debris. If we have been pushing God off to the side of our road, if we have been saying to Him that we don’t really have the time for Him, now is the time for us to get our priorities straight. As individuals, we might have to overcome deep-seated resentment, persistent fault-finding, unwillingness to forgive, dishonesty in our dealings with others, or a bullying attitude. And we all have to level the “mountains” of our pride and egocentrism. As a society we might have to dismantle unfair housing policies, employment disparity, economic injustice, or racial and ethnic biases.
#2: We need to repent and seek forgiveness from God and our fellow-human beings: John's message calls us to confront and confess our sins. We have to turn away from them in sincere repentance and receive God's forgiveness. There are basically two reasons why people who have recognized their sins fail to receive forgiveness for them. The first is that they fail to repent -- but the second is that they fail to forgive. Jesus is very explicit about this in Matthew 6:14 and 15. He says, "For if you forgive men their transgressions, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions." Is there someone I need to forgive today? We must not let what others have done destroy our lives. We can't be forgiven unless we forgive. We must release our bitterness if we are to be able to allow God to do His healing work in our lives.