Our gospel opens with a sketching out of the situation in the Holy Land: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea…” etc.
We might well ask, why does this matter? This is the story of Jesus; we will encounter Pilate later in the story, and his presence can be explained then. Why do we need this “setting of the scene”?
Mindful that this is scripture, inspired text and so, the Word of God mediated through the pen of St. Luke, we do need to ask about it’s importance.
Well, it’s important as a reminder that what is happening in the story of Jesus of Nazareth is understood as history, not myth, not parable, or any other genre of literature. That this greatest of all stories unfolds within the same reality that we have today. John the Baptist, the early church, and of course, our Lord and saviour face the powers of the world, and we do the same today. While it is not Tiberius imposing the grim Pax Romana, we have instead Joe Biden as President of the United States, the ostensible leader of what we once confidently called “the free world.” We can then name for ourselves, depending upon where we live, the respective local political leaders and other public figures. All these claim authority over our lives; and today they do so in a manner with which we are not accustomed.
We are called to be aware of our environment, our social and political and religious environment – It is in these intersecting contexts that our faith is lived, our mission carried out, our lives spent in the service of the Good News. We need to be aware of what the world is actually doing, and look for ourselves into the reality of things.
Our Lord says to be aware of the signs of the times, to look for the signs, to be honest in interpreting what we see and not rationalize away what is unwelcome, what is worrying: clouds gather, rain is coming.
The Second Vatican Council declared in its consideration of the Church facing secularizing modernity, “…it has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel…We must [therefore] recognize and understand the world in which we live, its explanations, its longings, and its often-dramatic characteristics. (Gaudium et Spes 4)
So, with that in mind, we follow the directive of Isaiah to prepare the way of the Lord, to fill every valley, flatten every mountain, make the crooked roads straight. When John the Baptist responded to that call, he set out to remove every obstruction from the path of the Saviour. But what is that work? What is it to flatten a mountain for the Lord?
When we consider what the world would actually look like if in real physical terms, if we did just what Isaiah says to do, well the Earth would be this smooth, featureless sphere. What a bizarre image! But what is being said here, what is being conveyed by this strange vision of the world made flat and plain is that we will have nowhere to hide. John the Baptist in his own way is doing that work by calling people to repentance that comes from examination of conscience, self-assessment based on the Word of God. He asks the people of Judah and the surrounding regions to stop hiding themselves away, and their sins, as though they could be hidden behind the mountains, tucked away in a forgotten valley, parked off a curve in the road, and so missed by our Lord as he makes his progress through the land.
Jesus himself says that we cannot hide, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.” (Luke 8.17)
The scriptures tell us there is nowhere that the Lord cannot go, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” (Psalm 139.8). Nothing can be kept from him, “For he knows the secrets of the heart.” (Psalm 44.21)
So, if God can find us out wherever we go; why do we have to do any of this work? The creator of the stars at night can surely flatten mountains himself!
But that is not what God wants: he desires that we willingly, and with trust in him, open ourselves to him, disclose the secrets of our hearts, the desire, the shame, the sorrow, and so allow him to enter in and bring us true inner peace and joy.
John the Baptist challenged the everyday person to personal accountability and honesty about themselves because in that lies their salvation. Eternal life is found in a relationship with God; and we need to remove all that interferes with this.
John also challenged worldly authorities, the powers that be; and he did it, as we well know, at great personal risk.
We often think of Herod Antipas as a minor character, petty ruler and client of the Romans. Yet, in very real terms he has tremendous power over those directly under his rule; what he did affected those he ruled over. As I’ve explained in the past, John the Baptist’s calling out this younger Herod on the matter of his divorcing his wife and stealing his brother’s wife and marrying her isn’t merely a matter of private morals. The wife he divorced was the daughter of a king who then went to war with Herod Antipas and that inflicted very real suffering on his innocent subjects who were caught up in that conflict.
So, our moral introspection must be matched by our awareness of who is in charge here and calling them to repentance because that matters too.
But you’ll note, there is no call to rebellion by John. Rather, he preaches to Herod, calls him to repent, to return to God; he makes to this particularly worldly power, this politician, an appeal no different from what he made to the commoners. He may seem a troublemaker to those in power, but he really is seeking to save Herod.
We in the Church are called to a similar ministry. We pray for our leaders, we pray for public figures who have gone astray, the rich and the powerful.
And today, it is not always so obvious who is in charge, who possesses power; and they’re not always as notorious as Herod Antipas.
We live in a society today in which there are individuals who possess private wealth that exceeds many nations, people like George Soros, Elon Musk, Bill Gates; there is the phenomenon of global celebrity built on trivial accomplishments: being a movie actor; being an elite athlete – nothing wrong with these per se, but these people’s opinions are given disproportionate attention and credibility, and so are of influence upon the community through a global media system that is subject to gross manipulation.
Bill Gates, through his foundation, gave over $300 million to the mainstream media via grants for special projects – fair to say he paid to influence world opinion; Jeff Bezos who owns Amazon, also owns the Washington Post which is a major media influencer – this sort of thing explains why the news is what it is.
We’ve had professional basketball players defending the Communist Chinese government’s odious policies toward Hong Kong, the Uigyars, and Taiwan.
Ray Dalio, manager of one of the largest hedge funds (Bridgewater Associates) in the world, who uses his media appearances to influence investors to his advantage, he’s been defending Beijing. He said recently that the Communist government was simply acting like “strict parents” toward dissenters.
Sadly, too few people call him out on this lapse in morals and ethics; or push back when pro athletes talk nonsense.
We need to teach, to preach the world back to understanding of what is truly good and evil, what faithfulness to God is, and it is not the empty virtue signaling we see in the media. We need to pray for them as we pray for loved ones who have gone astray, who’ve forgotten God and substituted the empty approval of the world for true morality. We need to flatten the lies, fill up the chasms of rationalization that have us living with the obscenities of today’s culture that make sin a matter of pride, and hold up vices as though they were real virtues.
We need to start with ourselves. And in this season of Advent, this little Lent, we renew this work in anticipation of our Lord being born in us anew; a little rebirth that reminds us of our baptismal rebirth, a little dying to ourselves to restore our faith in the promise of resurrection; a little fasting that readies us for the great feast.