Brief synopsis of the readings: Our first reading comes from the prophet Baruch, a book that Catholics accept while Jews and Protestants do not. Here he speaks for God who proclaims an end of sorrow and distress. “Arise, Jerusalem, stand on the heights and turn your eyes to the east: to see your sons reassembled from west and east at the command of the Holy One, jubilant that God has remembered them.” Further, “[t]hough they left you on foot, with enemies for an escort, now God brings them back to you like royal princes carried back in glory.” Luke’s Gospel describes the time this reading took place: “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Phillip tetrarch of the lands of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrach of Abilene, during the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God to John son of Zechariah.” John proclaimed a baptism of repentance and forgiveness of sins.”
Today’s Gospel lists a virtual “Who’s Who” of people who will matter in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and it’s worth identifying who they are. Tiberius Caesar was the Roman emperor and doesn’t really enter into our story. I think we all know the name Pontius Pilate; he was a Roman ruler who was known for his cruelty and eventually sentenced Jesus to death.
If there was any truly evil character in the Gospels it’s Herod Antipas. He was a Jew who clearly did the bidding of the Roman occupiers and most Jews saw him as a turncoat. He ordered the execution of John the Baptist and was involved in the crucifixion of Jesus. He enjoyed his status and cared nothing for the people Jesus cared about. His half brother Phillip was a minor character as was Lysanias, Annas and Caiaphas. Finally, we end with John, who will play a major role in the readings in the next few weeks. He is Jesus’ cousin and known as John the Baptist.
So why all the names? Part of the reason is that they didn’t use numbers for years like we do now. For example, we are the year 2021 in the Christian calendar (years since the birth of Jesus, even if it’s inaccurate), the year 5782 in the Jewish calendar (the creation of the world in Genesis) and the year 1443 in the Muslim calendar (when the Prophet traveled from Mecca to Medina and founded Islam). And while we use “years since” on singular events, our ancient ancestors did not. They used “years in the reign of,” etc.
OK, enough of the Scripture lesson. What do these readings tell us this year? Glad you asked. Jews of the time recognized a long history of oppression and Baruch reminded his readers of their exile in Babylon. But the oppression from the Romans showed them an oppression on a much higher scale. The Romans didn’t want to rule over a small territory, they wanted to rule the entire known world. And they had the mojo to do it.
Almost all conquerors make or imply vague promises of mercy to those they conquer in the hope that the conquered will submit to their rule. And in fairness the Romans only demanded two things of the Jews at that time: pay your taxes and accept that we are in charge. But the Romans spent a great deal of time worrying about rebellion and put people in place who they knew would not accept even the appearance of rebellion. Hence they appointed Pontius Pilate. Jews were right to fear the future: thirty three years after Jesus’ death and resurrection the Romans destroyed their Temple and it has not been rebuilt to this day.
And let’s face it: in the year 2021 (or 5782, or 1443) we have a great deal to fear looking toward the future. Our choices are warming the planet and even if we won’t live with the consequences our descendants will.
In several countries we see an increase in fascism that promises to protect a select few from a perceived dangerous minority, often determined by skin color or immigration status. And yes, I believe the United States is one of those countries.
We are currently living with a virus that has killed over five million people in the last two years. And yet many among us refuse to take reasonable precautions like vaccines and wearing a mask.
So what are we to do with our well founded fear of the future? We’re going to be hearing more about John the Baptist but I like to think we should pay a great deal of attention to him. He didn’t proclaim a strategy to defeat the Romans and he certainly didn’t see himself as the savior. Instead he preached about individual behavior. He spoke about individual repentance and forgiveness and asked that we look to one greater than him.
This “greater than him” did nothing to conquer the Romans but he did much more. Jesus’ ministry encouraged us to look at the long game and keep our eyes on the prize. Our hope for Advent lies not in the belief that we can reverse climate change or fascism or COVID ourselves but that God will, in the end, ensure we are cared for.
When I worked in hospice we measured the level of help someone needed by ADL’s or “activities of daily living.” We assessed if the person could dress himself, feed himself, and others. But in the last few years I’ve been thinking of ADL’s in terms of “anxieties of daily living.”
God knows we have enough anxieties of daily living. But both the freedom and hope of Advent tell us that in the end we are safe. Our belief lies in the fact that we don’t know what awaits but we know that it will be good.