Thursday, December 06, 2018

A Straight Path in the Wilderness of Our Soul: 2nd Sunday of Advent

As we start the second week of Advent, the Church turns her attention from the second coming of Christ to his first coming, and in particular to the figure of John the Baptist, the forerunner or herald of Jesus Christ.

Usually the Church reads heavily from the prophet Isaiah during the Advent season, and indeed, Isaiah 40 would have made a good First Reading for this Sunday because it is quoted in the Gospel.  However, in Year C, the Church takes a little break from exclusive attention to Isaiah and reads some other Old Testament texts that are also important for understanding the significance of Christ’s coming. 

The readings for this Mass are heavily marked by what we may call a “New Exodus” theme.

We recall that the people of Israel became a nation when they were brought out of Egypt under Moses in the first Exodus.  Afterward, under Joshua, they entered and possessed their land. 

Centuries later, however, they sinned against God, and he permitted them to be conquered and exiled by the nations of Assyria and Babylon.  During these tumultuous years, Israelites became scattered to the four corners of the earth.

The great prophets of the Old Testament predicted that, at some future time, God would repeat the Exodus, only this time it would not be out of Egypt, but out of all the nations to which the people of Israel had been scattered.  Scholars call this the “New Exodus” theme in the prophets, and it can be found in many places (Isa 11:10-16; Jer 23:7-8; Ezek 37:21-22).

Our First Reading for this Sunday, a selection from the rarely-read Book of Baruch, has a heavy New Exodus emphasis:

Bar 5:1-9
Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever:
wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,
bear on your head the mitre
that displays the glory of the eternal name.
For God will show all the earth your splendor:
you will be named by God forever
the peace of justice, the glory of God's worship.

Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights;
look to the east and see your children
gathered from the east and the west
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that they are remembered by God.
Led away on foot by their enemies they left you:
but God will bring them back to you
borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones.
For God has commanded
that every lofty mountain be made low,
and that the age-old depths and gorges
be filled to level ground,
that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.
The forests and every fragrant kind of tree
have overshadowed Israel at God's command;
for God is leading Israel in joy
by the light of his glory,
with his mercy and justice for company.

Since this is the only time outside of the Easter Vigil that the Book of Baruch is proclaimed in Mass, I’d like to take a moment to make some general remarks about this important Old Testament book.

The short Book of Baruch is a collection of four edifying religious compositions associated with the literary legacy of Jeremiah.  While the character of the different compositions is diverse, they each advance the general unifying theme that Israel should avoid idolatry and covenant infidelity while patiently waiting for the fulfillment of God’s good promises after the exile.

Baruch is not accepted as canonical in Rabbinic Judaism, and is not extant in Hebrew, although it now seems clear that the entire book, including the Letter of Jeremiah, was originally composed in Hebrew.  Baruch is included in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Septuagint (e.g. Vaticanus, Alexandrinus), and the Septuagint Greek became the basis of all other ancient versions. 

Long considered a part of the Book of Jeremiah by the early Fathers, the attestation of the canonical status of Baruch is among the best of any of the deuterocanonicals.  In the Septuagint tradition, we find the order Jeremiah–Baruch–Lamentations.  The antiquity of this order is supported by the fact that the Septuagint translator of Jeremiah 26–52 also translated Baruch 1:1–3:8.  In the Vulgate, however, Lamentations is appended without break at the end of Jeremiah, followed by Baruch as a separate book.  St. Jerome did not re-translate Baruch, but incorporated the Old Latin translation (made from the Greek of the Septuagint) in the Vulgate.

The liturgy is at the center of attention in three of the four sections of Baruch.  In the first section, we have a liturgical prayer (1:15–3:8) intended to be recited accompanying the offering of sacrifice at the altar at the site of the former Temple (1:10-14).  In the third section (4:5–5:9), we find Jerusalem, temple-city and bride, consoled by God with the promise of the return of her children, who will resume worship within her.  In the fourth (the Letter of Jeremiah, 6:1-73), we have an extensive diatribe against the follies of the false worship offered to idols.  Thus, with the exception of the poem in praise of wisdom (3:9–4:4), most of the book reflects the reality that corporate worship is at the heart of the covenant relationship between God and his people.  In fact, the narrative of Baruch 1:1–3:8 is really driven by the fact that the destruction of the Temple has disrupted the covenant relationship with God.  Worship perpetuates and expresses the covenant relationship.  Worship is the divine-human communion the covenant was meant to facilitate.  Baruch’s efforts to lead a covenant repentance in the exile (Bar 1:1-9), therefore, naturally lead to the attempt to perpetuate liturgical worship at the site of the Temple, using whatever vessels available, even if only the poor quality silver ones of Zedekiah (1:8). 

In the passage we read for this Mass, Baruch speaks about the Israelites returning to Jerusalem along a highway.  The phrase about “every lofty mountain be made low, and … gorges be filled to level ground,” is virtually a quote of Isaiah 40, and actually derives from ancient highway-building practices.  Just as today, when a major road (usually a royal highway) was built in ancient times, they attempted to level the ground as much as possible to facilitate ease of travel.  When kings or emperors would take trips to survey their realms, they would at times expend the effort to build (or re-build) a smooth road specifically for royal entourage.  In this reading, the imagery is that the scattered Israelites are now royalty, and God is having a road built for them to return home.

Read in conjunction with Luke’s description of the beginning of the ministry of the Baptist (Luke 3:1-6), Baruch 5:1-9 sets the Baptist’s mission in the larger context of the prophetic hope for a New Exodus of Israel to God from the places of her exile.  We see that the Exodus and its “highway” are not so much geographical as spiritual realities.  Israel’s true exile is spiritual rather than physical.  The Baptist’s way of repentance is the true “highway” by which Israel will begin to travel back to the New Temple, which is Christ himself.

The Responsorial Psalm fits this New Exodus theme.  Psalm 126 was written when the people of Judah and Jerusalem were released from exile and captivity in Babylon at the end of the 500’s BC, and were able to return home to Judah to rebuild their nation and their culture:

Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6.
R. (3) The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
When the LORD brought back the captives of Zion,
we were like men dreaming.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with rejoicing.
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
Then they said among the nations,
"The LORD has done great things for them."
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad indeed.
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the torrents in the southern desert.
Those who sow in tears
shall reap rejoicing.
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves.
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

The return from Babylonian exile in the late 500’s BC was a partial fulfillment of God’s promises of a New Exodus, but not complete.  Not all the tribes of Israel came back to their land.  No son of David arose to be their king once more.  Jerusalem still languished in spiritual and economic poverty.  Clearly, the prophetic promises awaited a greater realization.

The Gospel describes how and when God would fulfill the promises of a New Exodus:

Gospel Lk 3:1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God."

St. Luke identifies John the Baptist as the primary fulfillment of a famous prophecy, Isaiah 40:3-5, in which an unidentified voice issues a call for a road to be made by which God will travel, bringing with him his scattered people back to their home.

But apparently, John the Baptist did not take Isaiah’s prophecy to be a literal command about road-building, because there is no record in the Gospels of him undertaking such a project.

The primary problem of the people of God was not a lack of roads.  The transportation system in the Roman Empire was, in fact, quite good. Israelites who wished to return to their ancestral land could get there, if they wanted.  However, large groups of them chose to live elsewhere around the Mediterranean, in places where they had found a good living.  Just as there are huge communities of Jews in New York and other major cities around the world outside the land of Israel today, so in ancient times there were huge Jewish colonies in Alexandria (Egypt), Rome, and in many of the major cities of the Empire. 

So the primary problem of God’s people was not a lack of roads, or their distance from their ancestral land.  The problem was their sins: their spiritual estrangement from God.  For this reason, the “road” that John the Baptist offers is repentance, expressed through water baptism.

The description of the road-building lends itself to a spiritual interpretation, one that has a basis in the New Testament itself, in texts like the Magnificat and the Sermon on the Mount.

“Every valley shall be filled” refers to hope, encouragement, and new life being granted to the poor, the oppressed, the lowly—people who feel they have been forgotten by God or are not worthy of God’s attention.

“Every hill made low,” refers to the humbling of the proud, the repentance that the strong and arrogant must undergo in order to receive God’s salvation.

The “winding roads” and “rough places” refer to the twists and turns of the human heart, contorted by sin (Jer 17:9).  The human heart needs to be “simplified” or “straightened” by honest and truthful confession of sin.

The classic hymn, “On Jordan’s Banks,” actually provides a fairly adequate spiritual exegesis of today’s Gospel in its second verse:

Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.

This is what the Church is calling us to do in this preparatory season of Advent.  Those of us who feel lowly and downtrodden by life need to exercise some faith and hope, lift up our heads, remember that this life is temporary, and look to Jesus.  Those of us who think we have it all together need to exercise some humility and do an examination of conscience.  But most of all, we need to straighten out our interior crookedness.  So in this second week of Advent, it would be highly appropriate to take the time right now to schedule a date for Confession this week.  This is the sacrament where we speak the simple truth, the twisted becomes straight, and the rough smooth.

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