2nd Sunday of Advent (C)
By Msgr. John N. Fell
Each year on the Second Sunday of Advent, the important figure of John the Baptist comes to the fore. This year, in a text that might well be entitled “The Call of John the Baptist,” we are presented with St. Luke’s introduction to the background and mission of this prophet and preparer for Jesus. This text orients us to our upcoming celebrations of Christ’s birth, but also, even more significantly, it reminds us of the importance of our own call to enable all people “to see the salvation of God” (Lk 3:6).
This Gospel reading is really divided into two sections. In the first (verses 1-2) we hear the details of John’s call to be a prophet. In the second (verses 3-6) we learn more about John’s message. Luke describes John’s call in the traditional manner of an Old Testament commissioning to prophesy. We learn that “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah” (Lk 3:2b). This is the most important thing about any prophet — they do not prophesy on their own behalf but rather are sent forth by God. Contrary to popular opinion, the role of the prophet was not to predict the future, the role of the prophet was to speak the words of God. A prophet was a person who saw things the way that God saw things; his utterances basically gave people a commentary on their lives and society from God’s point of view.
We further learn that the word of God came to John “in the desert” (Lk 3:2c). The desert was God’s crucible. When he wanted to purify and form someone, he sent him to the desert. John came out of the desert to speak God’s word — another sign that his message was God’s own missive to the people of Israel.
Significantly, we also learn of the timing of the call as well as John’s family connections as son of Zechariah. The dating of John’s call, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Lk 3:1), emphasizes its reality and its place in history. God’s mighty power was breaking into the normal framework of human affairs to do something special and new. John’s call and later Jesus’ preaching were dramatic examples of the power of God shining resplendently in the course of human events. The reader is alerted that this is no ordinary drama that is set to unfold, but rather the masterwork of God himself.
The second part of this Gospel reading emphasizes John’s message. With his baptism of repentance and call to “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight his paths!” (Lk 3:4b), John exhorts people to turn their lives toward the coming Messiah. He urges them to convert, to turn away from their old lives of sin and toward new lives of faithfulness to the Lord. He presses them to make their lives worthy of the God in whose presence they will soon stand.
His message also emphasizes that “all flesh” shall see God’s salvation. While Jesus would come among the Chosen People of Israel, his message and ministry was already destined to reach out and embrace the whole of creation. The salvation foretold by John was intended for all peoples and nations.
John’s message further stresses that this coming salvation is from God. Humans are called to prepare themselves and participate in the process, but the granting of salvation is God’s gracious gift. As he did in John’s call, God always takes the initiative in drawing his people away from sin and into his heavenly kingdom. In an age like our own in which we sometimes tend to create our own beliefs and understandings of salvation, this text serves as an important reminder that our ultimate good is determined by God, not human deliberations. The paramount way for people to advance God’s kingdom is by living faithfully the teachings of Jesus, embracing and witnessing to God’s truth active in our world.
The good news this Second Sunday of Advent is that God’s power and presence continue to be active in our world throughout all the ages. What John and the people of the Old Testament longed for is ours in abundance. The love of God continues to penetrate into our world through the Scriptures, the sacraments, and the Church. That love calls us to turn away from our sins and to renew our faithfulness to the Lord. As we prepare for Christmas, let us embrace this opportunity for repentance and renewal, for there is truly no better gift we can give ourselves and others this holiday season than to allow Christ’s love to shine through us.
Msgr. Fell is a Scripture scholar and director, diocesan Office for Priest Personnel