When John proclaimed a baptism of repentance, as today’s Gospel relates, he called people to a deep change of heart. For John the Baptist, repentance was not simply regret for past failings, but a commitment to orient life around God’s desires and purposes. What might living in alignment with God’s desires look like? Our readings offer some clues. Baruch indicates that when mercy and justice are embraced like a royal garment, we may see the fruits of repentance. Paul notes how the Holy Spirit has been active within the church in Philippi, forming them to live in a loving and united community of faith, so they may witness to the love of God. And John himself suggests that a repentant heart clears a path for God to enter, leveling the mountains and valleys of our resistance, so that God might dwell within.
HEIGHTS AND DEPTHS
John the Baptist preached from the desert. The desert not far from Jerusalem is extremely rugged, where steep hills and deep valleys are common across a barren landscape. When John quoted Isaiah in today’s Gospel, this rough terrain stirred the imagination of John’s listeners. John proclaimed that these hills and valleys are to be made level, to provide a smooth path for God to enter.
John’s listeners recognized that the height of hills and the depth of valleys are similar to human attitudes and relationships: heights of personal pride and depths of discouragement and fear. Hills and valleys evoked how people treat each other, with some people raised high and others brought low. They suggested how social structures embody and harden these tendencies with large-scale systems of military, political, or economic oppression. John proclaimed that God was about to alter this social landscape through the work of Jesus.
Transforming the human landscape, like the task of smoothing the desert hills and valleys, is an enormous undertaking, truly the work of God. Yet God looks for partners in this transformation. John the Baptist, and Jesus afterward, called followers to participate in God’s work, and to begin with repentance. We the Church respond to this call today, and acknowledge our ongoing need for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Our Advent preparation for Christmas includes opening our hearts to God’s forgiveness, so that Jesus might come to take residence there.
We join in God’s earth-moving project by repenting of how we block God’s path with resentments and fears. When we are brought low in our lives, we seek God’s help, and God will enlist the help of others. When we realize that we reside on mountains of advantage or privilege that place others in valleys, we are to repent and to change how we live. When we bring healing and justice to others, we are sharing in God’s earth-shaking work, and preparing a straight pathway for our God.
Today’s Readings: Bar 5:1–9; Ps 126:1–2, 2–3, 4–5, 6; Phil 1:4–6, 8–11; Lk 3:1–6
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