The Baptist's message: hope and conversion

At the start of our Gospel reading this Sunday, St. Luke offers the historical background of the beginning of John the Baptist's ministry, which historians would place between 27 and 29 AD. It was the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was the tetrarch of Galilee.

These details confirm that St. Luke is describing actual events, and not a myth. He is not saying, “Once upon a time,” but instead he places John the Baptist and Jesus Christ within our history. Jesus became man to teach us, to heal us, and most of all to save us from sin and death. It is a historic event, just as is the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Washington Redskins victory in Super Bowl XXVI. Yes, these all seem like they took place a long time ago, but we know them to be a real part of our past.

We recall these events during the Advent season. Primarily, we recognize Advent as a time of preparation for Christmas, yet each year, the Sunday Gospels of the first two weeks focus not on the events leading up to the birth of Jesus, but instead they call us to the conversion that is inspired by our making ourselves ready to encounter him.

In the first Sunday of Advent, we hear of our impending encounter with Jesus at our death at the Second Coming of Our Lord. In the second week of Advent, we meet the last and greatest of the prophets, John the Baptist. John first met our savior while both were in the womb when Elizabeth greeted the Virgin Mother at the Visitation.

“For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy,” said the mother of John the Baptist to the mother of our savior (Lk 1:44). From before his birth, John announced the coming of the savior.

In this Sunday's Gospel, we encounter John as an adult, fulfilling his mission and offering hope to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death (Lk 1:79). His is a message of joy, foretold by his leaping in the womb at their first meeting. Our sins shall finally be forgiven. Our salvation is at hand. This proclamation of the coming of the savior is meant to inspire us not only to hope, but also to conversion. As John the Baptist calls us to rejoice, he also tells us to prepare to meet our savior.

We can compare this to the cooking and cleaning that occurs before guests come for a holiday, offering our best to those who arrive. But we also must recognize it as something more than the arrival of a beloved guest. Jesus is God, who comes to offer salvation and eternal life. We want to do more than welcome him. We want him to stay with us always, to make his home in our heart and transform us through his grace so that we may have peace, joy and freedom in this life and the next.

Therefore, we straighten the paths, fill the valleys and lower the hills in our lives to speed his coming. We remove the obstacles of sin and try to release ourselves from worldly attachments so we can cling to our savior.

As such, we should recognize Advent as a time of conversion, similar to Lent. While the practice of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not commonly associated with Advent, they can help us make straight the paths that lead to our hearts, and make a clean, safe place for Our Lord to rest there. We may think of these disciplines as contrary to the joy of the season, they are, in fact, the means of intensifying that joy through the removal of what prevents us from welcoming our savior.

May we heed the voice of John the Baptist announcing the hope of the world and calling us to prepare the way. Let us have a place for our savior to dwell this Advent season and always.

Fr. Wagner is parochial vicar of St. Veronica Church in Chantilly.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018