fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being
governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee
… under the high priests Annas and Caiphas: the word of the Lord came to
John the son of Zachary in the desert.”
the Mass in Latin and English
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Dominica Quarta Adventus
In modern society we are accustomed
to careful record keeping. Official and even informal letters and documents
always have a date, and some include the time. This was true even before the
rise of the computer—birth and death certificates are good examples. My
tablet computer even wants to record the location where I was when I wrote
something. The calendar and the clock are everywhere, and they make their
effects on most everything we write or record.
But, this passion for precise dating
did not exist in the ancient world into which Jesus Christ was born. If
they felt a date was important enough, many writers referred to some natural
event that they expected everyone to know about. Usually it was something
catastrophic, so that everyone would remember it:
And Noe lived after the flood three
hundred and fifty years:
The words of Amos, who was among
herdsmen of Thecua … two years before the earthquake.
Of course, even the ancient writers
recognized that with time, people would no longer remember these events, or
would confuse them with more recent floods and earthquakes or similar
catastrophes. When something particularly important the writer might refer
to those in political power, on the assumption that future generations would
possess records of the succession of rulers who ruled over them.
In the Gospel passage we read today,
it is clear that Saint Luke considered his report of John the Baptist to be
particularly important, for he mentions not only the local rulers (Herod and
Philip) and the rulers of the Temple (Annas and Caiphas), but even the hated
Roman invaders, Pontius Pilate and his master in Rome, Tiberius Cæsar.
Certainly, future generations would be able to place this event in its
proper time—dates or no dates.
Saint Luke may also be trying to
call attention to the fact that the coming of Christ fulfilled the Old
Testament prophecy of Jacob about the coming of the Messias:
The sceptre shall not be taken
away from Juda, nor a ruler from his thigh, till he come that is to
be sent, and he shall be the expectation of nations.
The three political rulers Saint
Luke mentions were the sons of Herod the Great, who was descended from the
non-Jewish tribe of the Edomites. He and his sons had been put in power by
the Romans because they could be trusted to look after Roman interests. The
“scepter” had been “taken away” and the Messias, “the expectation of
nations” was finally on the scene.
Both Matthew and Luke inform us that
the arrival of the Messias also fulfilled the prophecy of Isaias:
voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be
made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways
plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
Ancient kings had whole cities built in their own
honor, and may well have had mountains moved and valleys filled in to make
their vacation travel smoother, and we are talking about the “King of Kings”
here, so the prophecy fits well enough.
But many commentaries on this passage suggest
that the “one crying in the desert” is addressed to us. We are to prepare
the way of the Lord into our souls. The valleys of the spiritual life must
be filled in: our luke‑warmness, our laziness, our fear must all be filled
in and covered over by elevating our hearts and minds to God. The mountains
of our pride, and greed, and lust, and dishonesty must be brought low with
humility, and generosity, and continence, and reverence for the truth. The
roughness of our souls, anger, impatience, and desire for vengeance must be
ground down with calm, and peace, and patience, and forgiveness.
Yes, John the Baptist went before our Lord in the
reign of Tiberius Cæsar, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas,
preaching “penance for the forgiveness of sins.” But, every bit as much, he
still goes before the Lord, preaching penance to us, even in the reign of
Cæsar Obama, and the high priesthood of Benedict and Francis. We must
resolve to “make straight the way of the Lord.”