Year C: Second Sunday of Advent
The Preaching of John the Baptist
Luke 3: 1,6
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.
He 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.”
- Luke begins by naming the civil and religious authorities who try and block Jesus and John’s ministries. Do you believe that no human authority can ultimately thwart God’s will and God’s purpose? If so, do you have any experience that confirms this belief? Explain
- Baptism is dying to a previous life and emerging to a new life. As this year ends and a new year begins, what do you hope to leave behind or “die to”? And what “new life” do you hope to be emerging to?
- It is easy for us to oversimplify the meaning of repentance as harnessing our will power to manage bad behaviors. During this Advent season, what needs to change in your heart and in how you think for repentance to have lasting meaning?
- How do thoughts about self-worthiness and unworthiness block you from receiving God’ forgiveness?
God’s forgiveness is freely given. But our lack of repentance is a door we close, preventing God’s forgiveness from being received and from taking root within us. Without true repentance, we cannot open our hearts and minds enough to move to new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of being.
This clever, opening sentence in Luke’s Gospel cuts two ways. On one level, it is the proper way to historically date an event. It names the ruling parties, beginning with Roman overlords, proceeding to Jewish rulers, and finally acknowledging Temple authorities. Hierarchical protocol is finally acknowledging Temple authorities. Hierarchical protocol is situating Him in the context of the major players of the day.
On another level, it is a scathing theological judgment on the Roman and Jewish political leadership and the religious establishment. The Word of God has bypassed them all. The political and religious leaders are meant to be mediators of the divine throne; earthly authority participates in divine authority. But the Word of God does not stop at palaces or the temple. Instead, it searches out a priest’s son who is also a prophet and finds him in the desert. The desert is a place of purification and inner scrutiny, far from the machinations of power.
John’s baptism is an outer ritual meant to express and facilitate an inner process. A standard interpretation is: as dirt is washed off by water, so sin is washed away by baptism. Another interpretation sees the submerged person dying to their previous life, returning to the waters of the womb, and emerging from the waters into a new life. Neither of these interpretations names the intricacies of inner process. Instead, they stress change, a transition from one state to another.
The intricacies of the inner change process are captured in the phrase a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” “Repentance’ is a translation of the Greek word metanoia. Metanoia literally means ‘going beyond the mind.” When we are able to go beyond the mind, forgiveness of sins follows. This is an enigmatic connection. It assumes there is something about the mind that holds onto sins; and there is something about going beyond the mind that lets go of sins.
This going beyond the mind to let go of sins is not an end in itself. For John the Baptist it is the necessary work of preparation. Borrowing the language of Isaiah, he sees himself as a construction worker. He is building a highway for the arrival of the Lord. Whatever is an obstacle will be eliminated. If the road is winding, it will be straightened. If it is rough, it will be smoothed. If a mountain is in the way, it will be flattened. If a valley slows travel time, it will be lifted into a flat surface. The effect of these multiple images is a sense of determination. Whatever is needed to ease the Lord’s arrival will be done. This is a man on a mission. But what is this “going beyond the mind to let go of sins” preparation for?
The account of Jesus’ baptism gives a symbolic answer. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus comes out of the water, he prays. In prayer the sky opens, the Spirit as a dove descends, and the heavenly voice affirms, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. (Luke 3:22) This is the goal of the going beyond the mind and forgiving sins. It readies the baptized person to hear the transcendent word of love. Without forgiveness of sins, people are blind and deaf to the descent of the dove and the voice from the sky. The full process entails going beyond the mind to let go of sins and receive the Holy Spirit. This is what happens to Jesus, and this is what can happen to his followers. John’s highway is ultimately a path to let God get close, to make it possible to welcome Jesus as the Giver of the Spirit.
Going Beyond the Mind
The mind has a mind of its own. Thoughts think themselves, seemingly undirected by the thinker. The discovery of this simple and undeniable facet of our makeup can be quite startling. We fantasize we are in complete control of mental processes. However, the actual situation seems to be quite different. When we concentrate, we can focus thinking along a certain path. But if we relax attention, certain automatic mental processes kick in. The automatic process that concerns John the Baptist is how we deal with the wounds that have been inflicted on us and the wounds we have inflicted on others. In religious language, his focus is on how the mind seduces us into identifying with sin.
There is an adhesive quality about sinful experiences. They stick. We remember the beatings, the humiliations, the hateful glances, and the mocking words. The wrongs done to us are available to memory in way neutral and even positive experiences are not. Although the experience of sin begins with being sinned against, we are quick learners in this way of being human. We soon learn to wound others. We engage in hitting, lying, cheating, betraying, etc. We need to protect and promote ourselves at all costs. Any behavior that appears to further this narrow and intense self-preoccupation we embrace. Soon we can tell our life story in term of blows received and blows given. It is a tale of sin; and even if we repress it, it secretly shapes our sense of who we are.
This attraction of the mind to the negative has a cumulative effect. As the mind simultaneously nurtures a sense of victimhood and wallows in guilt over its own mistakes, sin rises to a new status in the interior life. We gradually begin to identity with the sinful dimension of our lives. In our own eyes, we become, above all else, one who has been sinned against and one who sins in turn. We are the receiver and giver of blows, and the highest compliment is, “He gave as good as he
got.” The mind is convinced this is the “real us,” and it defends this identity by citing facts and providing rationalizations. Nothing can disprove this obvious truth.
However, there is an important distinction to be made in telling this inner story of sin. The distinction is between what has happened and what the mind does with what has happened. We really have been maltreated, victims of the wrongdoing of others; and we really have maltreated others, making them victims of our wrongdoing. Not to acknowledge this active participation in the sin of the world is to be either incredibly dense or in chronic denial.
But the point is not the sheer factuality of moral evil. The point is what the mind does with these experiences. It enthrones them as the secret and irreversible truth about the human person. Sinner becomes the depth identity, the loudest interior noise that blocks out any refuting voices. The result is an ever-deepening connection of who we are with the wrongs done to us and by us.
This inner escalation of sin raises the gospel question: “Are grapes gathered from thorns or figs from thistles?” (Matt 7:16). If we think we are unredeemed sinners, we will not bear fruit. We will not ripen and blossom with compassion, justice, love, and respect. Most importantly, we will not be able to hear the real name that Jesus calls us. Our identification with sin becomes a serious roadblock—a mountain in the way, a winding and rough path that means slow travel, a valley that delays arrival. Jesus cannot get to us with his radical address that we are the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and a blessedness that is always present no matter what external circumstances prevail. When we cling to our identity as sinner, his words cannot penetrate the armor of our hardened self-evaluation. He is not the One Who Is to Come, but the One Sin Keeps Away. That is why John the Baptist is needed as preparation for Christ. He enables people to go beyond the mind and let go of sins.
This repentance that leads to the forgiveness of sins is a subtle process, but it is not an impossible one. Two key insights often help us. The first insight involves our awareness of the nature of the mind. When we become aware of the powerful tendency of the mind to hold onto sin, we are already beyond it. We see what it is doing, and so we are more than it. We transcend the mind by noticing how it works. When this happens, a sense of spaciousness replaces the sense of restriction, and a sense of freedom replaces the sense of compulsion. We feel we have walked through a door into a hidden room that feels like home. We are closer to who we really are.
The second insight involves an implication of the basic Christian conviction of the unconditional forgiveness of God. God is ultimate reality and, therefore, if God holds the sin, the sin transcends the flow of time and remains permanently present. But if God has let go of the sin, then who is holding on? The forgiveness of God clears the way for us to see where the real action is. The real action is the mind and how it clings to negative evaluations. The question changes from “Will God forgive me?” to “How can I go beyond the mind that clings to sin, even though God has forgiven me?’
Before we can hear the words that Jesus heard, “You are my beloved child. In you I am well pleased,” we will have to undergo John’s baptism, which entails a repentance that leads to the forgiveness of sins. If we do this, the path is cleared.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.