In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around 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, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
The Incarnation is the mystery that God intervened in human history. The Evangelist of today’s gospel, St. Luke, was a historian. For historians, time is very important in their study of history. There was not universal calendar at that time. So, St. Luke tried to pinpoint the exact year of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry by mentioning several well-known authorities who were in office at that time in verses 1 to 3 of today’s gospel.
With these well-known authorities at that time in Palestine, the general consensus today is that John the Baptist began to preach in the year around 28 to 29 AD. Therefore, it was the same year when Jesus began his public ministry. This is important in the sense that the Incarnation was a historical event taken place in Palestine at that particular time. It is not an invention of human mind.
St. Luke has already told us who John was in chapter one. The significance of today’s gospel relating to John is “the words of the prophet Isaiah”: “was in the desert until the day of his manifestations to Israel” (1:80). Here we are told that this day has now come and that John has received his heavenly call to the office of precursor – the one who was to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.
John’s mission was to preach repentance to get the people to turn to God, and as it was customary with the Jews to go through external rites of washing to represent the interior cleansing of the heart and mind, John chose the Jordan banks to conduct the rite of washing as a token of repentance. In fact, it was not his choice at all, but God’s providence, because it was the only river in southern Palestine.
In addition to administer the rite of repentance washing, John also preached. He preached by saying that he was the fulfillment of what the prophet Isaiah had foretold concerning the expected Messiah (Isaiah 40:3-5), which meant that he was sent to get the people ready for the one who was to come.
The meaning of the verse “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…” is to tell people the one who was to come is an important person, a person with high authority. In ancient Palestine, when a king or a person of high authority was to visit another king or dignity, the host sent his slaves to level the paths and to smooth the road for the camels. Isaiah used these words to describe how the royal Messiah should be received.
Moreover, Isaiah followed the promise given to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Genesis 12:3; 26:4, and 28:14) sees the future Messiah as the Savior not only of the Chosen People but of all nations.
Finally, today’s gospel tells us that salvation can only come from God because the human race, because of its sinfulness, had abandoned God and could not return to Him of its own strength. The infinite love and mercy of God went in search of the lost sheep and through the Good Shepherd, the Messiah, brought mankind back once more to the true fold.
Today, we can ask ourselves how we should prepare ourselves if the welcome we give our Savior is to be sincere and true. We will have to admit that our paths – our dealing with God – over the past 12 months have been far from straight and smooth. At the same time, we might feel ashamed of our meanness and our ingratitude towards the good God to whom we owe everything we have.
Let us humbly beat our breast and admit our meanness so that we can lower the mountains of selfish pride and fill up the valleys of laziness and forgetfulness by turning to Him with hearts full of gratitude and repentance because we believe that there will be mercy in abundance even for the greatest sinner among us. Amen.