Commentary on the Readings
2nd Sunday of Advent – Year C – December 9, 2018
I will call you with a new name
Statistics say that 98% of women do not like how they are and try in every possible way (imposing diets, doing aerobics, choosing a new look, resorting to cosmetic surgery) to improve their image. The ancients—for whom the name formed one with the person—would have called these efforts seeking to give oneself a new name, attempts to rebuild the name. God loves to change connotations and name to persons, cities and peoples. He called Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Simon, and gave them a new name. He transformed Jerusalem—the city in ruins, “the slave”, “the sad and withered widow”—into a town called “Graceful”, “Jewel”, “Peace of righteousness and glory of godliness.”
We perhaps feel hopelessly chained to a name that we know we deserve, even though nobody has ever given it to us: “Alcoholic”, “Addict”, “Slave of the game”, “Sexually Corrupt”, “Unfaithful”, “Dishonest”, “Unreliable” … It is the unfortunate condition from which God wants to free us. He comes to reveal to us the name by which he calls us from all eternity.
By what name can we call our nation, our Christian community, our family? We would call them: a place of peace, sharing, justice, brotherhood or should we expect the Lord to visit and give them a new name? God has risked a lot in giving people freedom. He is placed in the state and in the event of seeing his love rejected. But if he decided to play this game it is hard to imagine that he can get out of it defeated. One day he will call every person with a new name that his love will have indicated.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Every man shall see the salvation of God.”
In Israel, the woman who lost her husband or a son wore the clothes of mourning. She covered her head with a veil. Grief-stricken she sat on the floor, did not prepare the food, did not wash, did not anoint herself with perfumes. So she expressed her despair.
The reading compares the city of Jerusalem to a sad widow from whose arms her children were torn away by brutal violence. She sits disconsolate, covered with the robe of mourning and rejects every word of comfort.
The reference is to one of the most dramatic events in the history of Israel: the destruction of the holy city, the devastation of its territory and the deportation of its inhabitants. As a mom, Jerusalem has seen her children depart in chains, driven by cruel soldiers. She was convinced that she would never see them again.
Many years passed—perhaps fifty—and one day God raises among the exiles a prophet instructed to bear a message of joy to her who once “a mistress among the nations, a princess among the cities, she has now become a slave” (Lam 1:1).
He tells her: Jerusalem, your grief is over! Put off your garments of mourning, wrap yourself in shining mantle. God is about to put on your head a crown of glory.
No one has ever seen a withered old woman rejuvenate and become a beautiful and charming girl. Yet this will happen with Jerusalem—says the prophet—on her the glory that comes from God will shine (v. 1).
Mind you: it is not the glory that we think we can give to God (as if he needs our applause), but the glory that comes from him. It is the manifestation of his love through his intervention in our favor. This is his glory: the life of man.
The transformation of mourning into joy—says Baruch—will be visible to all. God will make manifest the glory of Jerusalem renewed “to every creature under heaven” and this will be the sign that nothing is impossible for his love.
Hosea—the prophet who first used the image of Israel as the bride of the Lord—alluded to another prodigy. God—he said—will get engaged again with Israel, the adulteress. He will completely abolish her past with his love, he will restore even her virginity (Hos 2:21-22).
As a sign of the transformation that occurred, Jerusalem receives new names: she is called “Peace in Justice” and “Glory in the fear of the Lord” (v. 4).
For a Semite the name is not a simple conventional designation. It is always closely linked to the person, is identified even with its bearer. To make a census means to enslave the one who is on file (2 Sam 24). To change the name indicates the allocation of a new personality (Gen 17:5).
Jerusalem receives new names that indicate her destiny: she will become the place where true peace will reign, not that which is apparent, that is only legalized oppression, but one that is the fruit of justice, that is, the realization of God’s plan. It will be “the glory of the fear of the Lord” because her fame is not derived from political prestige or military successes, but by her piety, that is, from faithfulness to her God.
Baruch continues: Jerusalem, rise up, stand on the heights. Look towards the east and see your children gathered together from the setting of the sun to its rising. They left you on foot humiliated and taken away by the enemy, now returning in triumph; God will lead them back, carried gloriously like royal princes (vv. 5-6).
It is the miracle worked by the Lord. God has decided to level every mountain and fill every valley so that the Israelites can effortlessly return to their mother. Even the trees that produce fragrant resins bend their branches to give shade and protect from the sun the group of returning deportees. For God will lead them, as he has accompanied their fathers when they left Egypt.
The reading is an invitation to joy and hope for the Lord “has resolved to bring low every high mountains and the everlasting hills, to fill up the valleys and level out the ground” (v. 7). He has established, he has taken an irrevocable decision. He will not give peace until he has moved all the mountains, crumbled all the cliffs and visited all the abysses.
When we experience some difficulty we turn to God and beseech him to grant us what we need.
The Israelites do not pray so. They always start their invocations with a “blessing” in which they list the reasons why they must give praise and thank the Lord. Only after, they present him their demands. They say, for example: “Blessed are you Lord that facing the pain of man you move us to pity… Now I am suffering…” …
The passage of the Letter to the Philippians reported in our reading is the example of one of these Jewish prayers composed of two parts. In the first (vv. 4-6) Paul gives thanks to God. “Blesses” God for what he has accomplished in the community of Philippi, the first Christian community in Europe. The community—he says—is very generous; she also helped financially the preachers of the Gospel, leads a life intact and fills his heart of an apostle with satisfaction and joy.
Before turning the plea to God, he cannot help but express their inner emotion in front of the so abundant grace received. He declares his love to those who are so dear to him “in the love of Jesus Christ” (v. 8).
In the second part (vv. 9-11) he asks God to let grow among the Philippians more love and understanding of what is really good and according to the Gospel.
Perhaps our communities do not feel deserving the praises that Paul addressed to the Philippians. However, we must cultivate confidence and optimism. “Since God began such a good work in you, I am certain that he will complete it” (v. 5), as he did in Philippi. It is his work, not ours. We are asked only to let him act, let ourselves be led by His Word.
The chronological reference with which Luke begins his account (vv. 1-2) is precise and important because it allows us to date the beginning of Jesus’ public life. In Palestine the year begins on October 1 and then the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius is between 1 October of 27 A.C. and 30 September of 28 A.C., a date that fits perfectly with John 2:20.
Luke wants to make it clear to everyone that he is not telling a story, an esoteric myth born from fantasy and eccentric imagination of a dreamer. He is referring to concrete facts. The intervention of God in human history happened in a time and in a well-defined place. However, if the evangelist’s goal was only to indicate the starting date of Jesus’ public life, he could stop after this first indication. He instead continues and adds others. He indicates the names of the governors of Palestine and of the neighboring territories and those of the high priests, Annas and Caiaphas. In all seven characters and to arrive at this figure he must insert also Annas who was high priest for thirteen years but not any longer, although he continues to play an important role.
The number 7 clearly has a symbolic meaning: that of totality. Along with the names and functions of persons mentioned, it indicates that all of history—sacred and secular, Jewish and pagan—is involved in the incident that is being told. It is a beginning that concerns all peoples and all the civil and religious institutions.
After the historical introduction, the first character, the Baptist, enters the scene: “The word of God came to John, the son of Zechariah in the desert” (v. 2). These are the words with which the Old Testament presented the vocation of the great prophets (Jer 1:1,4).
It all starts in the desert (v. 2), a place full of memories and deep emotional resonance for the Israelites. In the desert they have learned many lessons: they have learned to break away from all that is superfluous because it is an unnecessary burden to carry along the way; they learn to be in solidarity and to share their goods with the brothers; they have learned, above all, to trust God.
At the time of Jesus, it is in the desert that those who want to repeat the experience of their spiritual fathers withdraw. They are those who want to escape the hypocrisy of a religion of formalism and purely exterior practices. Those who reject the corrupt, unjust and oppressive society installed on their land go to live in the desert. Among these “contesting” people, there is also John the son of Zechariah (Lk 1:80).
Luke does not say anything about his style of dress. He does not talk about his food, but, from what Matthew tells us (3:4), we know that the Baptist did not use the long white robe of the priests of the temple. He wore a rough habit, as the prophet Elijah did (2 K 2:13-14). He was not eating the products of the city; he fed on what the desert spontaneously offered. The Baptist wanted to be and to appear a stranger in his own land. He was an Israelite, but his behavior clearly distinguished him from his countrymen.
Like John, even Christians in the world, live the spirituality of the desert. In a world where recourse to violence, retaliation and even war is considered normal, they speak only words of peace and forgiveness. In a world where those who hoard goods and exploit the weakest are proclaimed blessed, they announce free service to the poor and sharing. In a world where pleasure is sought at all costs, they preach renunciation and self-giving.
From the desert, the place of his vocation, John moves to the region of the Jordan. He travels far and wide proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His preaching—it is good to anticipate it right away to not misunderstand some of his expressions—was a message of joy and consolation to all, as Luke wants to underline a few verses later (Lk 3:18).
In ancient times the Jordan River—which crosses a desolate region—never had any importance as a communication link (not navigable) nor for irrigation. No major city is built along its banks. Its importance has always been that of being a boundary between different peoples. To take possession of the Promised Land, Israel, who came out of Egypt, had to cross it (Jos 3).
The Baptist chose this border territory for his mission. In the rite of baptism that he administers, he wants everyone to repeat the act of entering, crossing the Jordan, into the land of freedom. He wants to prepare a people prepared to accept the salvation of God, ready to enter into the true Promised Land. For that he asks everyone to take resolute decision to radically change how one thinks and lives.
To clarify the role that John has to play, Luke cites a phrase of the prophet Isaiah: “The voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (v. 4).
One cannot but notice a contradiction to what we heard in the first reading. There Baruch said: “For God resolved to bring low every high mountain, to fill up the valleys and level out the ground, that Israel may walk in safety” (Bar 5:7). His was a confident hymn to salvation that God would certainly accomplish.
Instead, in the book of oracles of the prophet Isaiah, the Israelites are asked to prepare themselves the way of the Lord. The prophet directs to them the invitation to commit themselves to lower every hill and pave the rough places. Salvation comes from God and it is his work, but it can be obtained only by those who remove the obstacles to his coming.
The two prophets do not contradict but complement each other. The first emphasizes the irresistible work of God’s love. God—he says—will succeed, however, with his faithful love, to bring his people out of the land of slavery to freedom (Bar 5:7-9). He is like a man madly in love: no obstacle is insurmountable for him along the path that leads to the encounter with the woman he loves. There is no mountain so high, no valley so deep and dark that could prevent him from realizing his dream of love.
The second prophet emphasizes instead the work of man. It is true that the success of God’s love is still assured, but man can lose so many moments, so many days, so many years of happiness and joy away from his Lord. This is why it is urgent that he opens his heart, removes soon all obstacles to the meeting with him.
Unlike the other evangelists who only quote a verse from Isaiah, Luke continues the quote: “The valleys will be filled and the mountains and hills made low. All flesh* will see the salvation of God” (vv. 5-6). If he also adds these verses he considers them important. Let us grasp the reason.
The valleys to be filled, the mountains to level out, the hills to make low, and the crooked ways to make right and inaccessible places to smooth out are undoubtedly intended not in a material sense, but as symbols of another reality.
In biblical language the mountains and the hills are pride, haughtiness, arrogance of those who want to impose, dominate on others (see Is 2:11-17). The kingdom of God is incompatible with these haughty and arrogant attitudes. It cannot get to where the competitive spirit reigns, where one tries in every way to overwhelm the other, where castes are accepted, where bows, prostrations, respects, curtsies are required. Only those who accept the reverse logic enters the new world: the gift of self, the humble mutual service, seeking the last place. “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as the servant” (Lk 22:26).
Then there are the depths to fill. They are the scandalous economic inequalities denounced by the prophets.
Finally the crooked paths are astuteness, senseless choices, unjust situations that need to be reviewed and brought in line with the ways of God. “Is my position wrong? Is it not rather that yours is wrong?” (Ezk 18:25).
The Baptist requires a radical conversion. How to hope that man can carry it out?
If we understand the meaning of the prophet’s words, as verbs in the form of a command (“be filled”, “be lowered down”, “be straight”), as if they were an injunction, it is man who, through his efforts and commitment, must realize the huge enterprise. So we have strong reasons to believe that it will never be brought to completion.
In fact, in the original Greek text, the verbs are in future passive: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked paths will be straight ….”
So, let’s face it with joy! The question changes. It is not about orders given by God but about his promise. The world based on new principles will rise, although it may seem like a mirage to people and it will be my work.
The last part of the quote is particularly important: All flesh will see the salvation of God! (v. 6). Not “every man”, but “all flesh”—says the original text. In the biblical sense, meat are not the muscles, but the whole person considered in his appearance of being weak, fragile, exposed to so many failures. Man is flesh because he gets sick, makes mistakes, suffers loneliness and abandonment, grows old and dies. Here then is the promise: in every man’s weakness God’s salvation will manifest itself; there will be no abyss of guilt so deep and dark that will not be visited and enlightened by his love.
Luke places this statement at the beginning of his Gospel. He chooses it almost as the title of his work because it contains a solemn declaration: God does not reserve his salvation to some privileged people, but wants it to be offered to all. No one will be excluded.
It is an echo of the prophecy of Simeon: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you display for all the people to see, the light you will reveal to the nations” (Lk 2:30-32).
[*In the biblical sense, ‘flesh’ are not the muscles, but the whole person considered in his appearance of being weak, fragile, exposed to so many failures. A man is flesh because he gets sick, makes mistakes, suffers loneliness and abandonment, grows old and dies. Here then is the promise: in every person’s weakness God’s salvation will manifest itself; there will be no abyss of guilt so deep and dark that will not be visited and enlightened by his love.]
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: