In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
There is so much to talk about today that I am going to farm out several topics for the wild card days coming up, including a discussion on the meaning of Advent (about which there is a good amount of catechetical and preaching confusion), and the process of selecting a worthy text when studying one of the books of the bible. Catholics and other Christian Churches which use our lectionary entered the C Cycle last Sunday, which focuses upon the majestic Gospel of St. Luke. I do need to lay a bit of groundwork here, though, before jumping right into next Sunday’s text from Luke 3.
A professional point of pride and competence—for catechists and all professionals, really—is providing access to your sources. I have to come clean here and admit that I have not read a full commentary on the Gospel of Luke, cover to cover, in decades. The commentaries I do own on this Gospel are dated; yes, even the best commentaries have a shelf life. So, in planning ahead for Cycle C I had to give some hard thought as to the best “steering current,” selecting a text that would expand my horizons along with yours as we progressed over the next 51 weeks. My selection was indeed out of my comfort zone, The Gospel of Luke by Joel B. Green (1997). Green is an eminent scholar of the Evangelical tradition as well as an ordained Methodist minister. My own interpretive outlook has been drawn from scholars of the 1960-1980 era; Green is of a newer generation that believes my generation interpreted things to death, and puts greater emphasis upon the internal narrative of a particular Gospel. I was trained to look at the Gospels comparatively; Green’s generation is more text oriented, which of course is to be expected of the Evangelical tradition.
The difficulty with studying Luke in the context of the liturgical cycle is that our first exposure to Luke in the Sunday readings is well into the middle of things; a good example of this is last Sunday’s text in which Luke describes the need for watchfulness for future events; Advent, at its heart, focuses upon the final coming of the Messiah, turning its attention to the birth of Jesus (his first coming) on December 17. It is unfortunate that the actual opening of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1: 1-4, see the text here) will not appear in the Mass text until Ordinary Time in January, for Luke is the only evangelist who actually tells us what he sets out to do. Luke’s introduction has fascinated scholars of every generation. He candidly admits that he is not the first person to put pen to papyri on the events of the appearance of Jesus of Nazareth. He states that he has carefully reviewed what others have written and presumably said, and he makes no direct claim to having witnessed any of these events himself. So why did Luke undertake his own literary masterpiece if others (Mark?) have already reported?
There are two reasons put forward by Green (pp. 33-46). The first is Luke’s expectation that by dedicating his work to “most excellent Theophilus,” a man of some dignity and social standing, his writing would get a wider circulation than Luke, as a typical Roman artisan, might ordinarily expect. The other reason, the one that makes Luke’s work distinctive from the earlier accounts, is that Luke proposed to lay out for Theophilus the reports of Jesus in an “orderly account.” The source of this “order” will become evident as soon as Luke begins his narrative at 1:5 with the high priest Zachary encountering an angel in the temple: it is the preordained plan of God from all time. At the conclusion of Luke’s Gospel the risen Jesus will chide the two disciples bound for Emmaus for their failure to piece together the weave of God’s revelation in the Scriptures and its climax in Jesus’ death on the cross.
For those of you who followed St. Mark’s Gospel last year, Luke by comparison is rich, colorful, and heavily dependent upon Hebrew Scripture thinking and episodes. Scholars believe that Luke, Like Matthew and John, probably drew from Mark, but Luke exercises his literary imagination and includes entire episodes with no parallels in the other Gospels. Luke’s “Infancy Narrative” covers two entire chapters. His Gospel is filled with the parables we best know and love, and his details of physical life such as Jesus’ sweat before his arrest appearing as “drops of blood” led centuries of Christians to give Luke the title of “dear and glorious physician.”
For our purposes this weekend, Luke gives us more information about John the Baptist than any other Gospel, including texts of his sermons. In fact, the focus of the entire Gospel for this Sunday is John. We have a description of John receiving the Word of God, which empowered his proclamation. Obviously John here is not announcing the birth of Jesus, which would have occurred three decades earlier. His look to the future does not mention the return of Jesus or the Son of Man, but rather to a time when God himself would bring deliverance and forgiveness of sins. This is an apocalyptic text, with the Baptist quoting from Isaiah 40. This segment from Isaiah is part of a national hope of Israel that one day all the nations of the earth would stream to Jerusalem the holy city; the Mass for the Feast of the Epiphany provides this prophesy in greater length and detail.
The relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus is very complex. I will go into that as well in the days to come, but the best treatment of the two men is found in Father John Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Volume II, Mentor, Message and Miracles, where an excellent 233-page analysis is provided.