John the Baptist is the major figure in this year’s Advent Gospel readings. Today’s passage is the beginning of Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus, and John the Baptist appears at this point in all four evangelists’ versions.
Luke situates the call of the Baptist in the context of world history, referring to the Roman emperor, the civil rulers of Palestine and the religious leaders of the people of Israel. He mentions that John is the “son of Zechariah”, thus reminding us of the promises about this person made in the earlier account of his conception and birth.
John is the one preparing the way for the Lord: he presents this in terms of constructing a straight and level road along which a royal person can travel in a fit and comfortable manner. This sorting out of the landscape indicates the people’s inner conversion, their sorting out of their lives, which they declare publicly by being baptised, undergoing ritual immersion in the river Jordan and having their sins forgiven. But the Baptist is not simply offering automatic pardon: he calls for a change of attitude and outlook, which is the underlying meaning of the biblical call to repentance.
Advent is one of the two Christian seasons of penance as we prepare for a major feast: the other is Lent, which we associate more readily with penitential practices. There are purple vestments, and no Gloria at Mass. John the Baptist, who will also appear prominently in the next two weeks’ Gospel readings, is the herald of the arrival of Jesus and calls on his listeners to make themselves ready to welcome the Messiah.
John’s preaching centres on a radical change in the way in which people think: the word metanoia (repentance) does not mean feeling sorry about wrong behaviour – although that may well be one result. It means adopting a different way in which we view ourselves, other people and our manner of living. Levelling hills and filling in valleys is a poetic way of presenting the task facing us: Advent is a time to think about the coming of Christ into our lives here and now and an invitation to remove the obstacles to receiving the Lord wholeheartedly at Christmas, as this means accepting “the salvation of God” which he offers.
However, once we have identified our shortcomings as disciples of Jesus, we may find it easier to act ourselves into a different way of thinking, rather than the other way around. If we decide to correct our faults and quietly act accordingly, we may find that our lives change in a remarkable fashion. Advent is a gentler time than Lent: it is very much the Marian season, when we are encouraged to think about Mary and her place in God’s plan. We are invited to think about our place in God’s plan and to respond as best we can. Adjusting our way of thinking and behaving can be part of our response – and well worth the effort.
- Metanoia is the New Testament term for repentance.
- Metanoia means changing our way of thinking, our attitude.
- Advent is very much the Marian season, when we think about Mary as the model
disciple, one who listens to the word of God, meditates upon it and puts it into practice.
Take out the crib figure of Mary and place it in a prominent place where it can be easily seen: think about Mary and her positive response to God’s invitation.