Homily December 9, 2018
Notes for Homily Advent 2C – December 9, 2018
Baruch 5: 1-9
Philippians 1: 3-11
Luke 3: 1-6
John the Baptist is presented by Luke
on the backdrop of a list of the most powerful people at that time in Palestine:
the emperor Tiberius, the governor of Judea Pontius Pilate, three brothers who were kings-clients of the Romans (Herod, Lysania, and Philip), and lastly the head-priests in Jerusalem: Annas and Caifas, presented as collaborators as well (Lk. 3: 1). Luke is interested in historical precision, but there is much more to his presentation of the Baptist within the context of such political figures.
TIBERIUS had a reputation for killing all who disagreed with him and for suspecting everybody of disagreeing with him. Roman historian Tacitus writes: “Here lay in heaps the unnumbered dead, of every age and sex, the illustrious with the obscure. Kingsfolk and friends were not allowed to be near them, to weep over them, or even to gaze on them too long. Spies were set around them, who took notice of the mourners individually, those who followed the rotting corpses until they were dragged into the river Tiber...” (Annals 6.19). The readers of Luke were undoubtedly aware of such reputation, and they knew all to well who were those other powerful people down the chain of command. So by setting the appearance of John the Baptist over such backdrop, Luke creates a tense atmosphere of fear.
In the previous chapters, Luke describes the situation in the land by talking about “fear” and “the shadows of death”. We know from examples closer to us than 1st century Palestine what does it mean for an entire population to live in constant fear or to sense deadly shadows all around. The regimes of Eastern Europe from 1945 to 1989 are a prime example. Spies all around, a continual sense of insecurity, people arrested for dissenting with the regime. But also El Salvador some thirty hears ago when Oscar Romero was killed, or Honduras today, are places where human life has little value and death is for everybody a constant compation. Fear that chokes people's throats and deadly shadows that make people tremble.
“Fear” and “shadows of death” are expressions that Luke places on the lips of the father of John the Baptist, Zecharia. Living under Roman occupation, Zecharia does not believe that there can be a liberation. Such is his emotional distress and trauma that when God shows to him a vision of liberation, he does not believe in it and cannot speak anymore. But then, after the birth of his son John, he is so filled with joy and the Holy Spirit that he erupts in a song. He prophezises about John and says that he will be the harbringer of liberation. He will be the one going before the Lord to prepare his ways, like the dusk before the dawn. And suddenly then the sun will appear and he will guide the people “into the way of peace” (Lk. 1:79).
In the words of Zecharia, John will “give knowledge of salvation to the people of God in the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk. 1: 76-77). Our passage today also connects SALVATION with the FORGIVENESS OF SINS.
Repentance →forgiveness → salvation
usual religious speech
Many people flock to John in the desert to receive such baptism. But we have just seen that the are oppressed by the Empire. How can liberation from oppression be connected to forgiveness of sins of those who are oppressed? The people flocking to John in the desert seem to be Jews!
The only two categories of sinners that Luke mentions (as we will see next week) are tax collectors and soldiers, namely those who collaborated with the Roman occupying forces. So sin in this context is essentially collaboration with the forces of oppression. Failing to see that, failing to place this story in its political context, means distorting the message of this Gospel passage and of the Gospel of Luke as a whole.
Repentance →forgiveness → salvation
becomes very new speech if we adopt this notion of sin
If we think that sin is disobeying a set of rules, we stay pretty much on the surface and we water down very much the meaning of today's Gospel. When, instead, we undertand that sin is about abetting the oppressive powers, we don't have immediate clarity about what to do next (see Lk :7ff), but we are engaged in a much more interesting affair.
Very few people in this country, except the very poor, can claim not to be involved at all into some system of exploitation and oppression. Whether it is because of the coltan, a mineral used for our cellphone and computers which is extraced by African children working in the most horrible conditions, or because we wear clothes produced in sweatshops, or because we fail to stand up for equal rights for all people... we are involved. If we are afraid of other people, especially of poor people, we are involved, we have let the deadly power of domination enter our souls.
Wherever you are in the social scale of power, there is always somebody lower, with less power than you. Have you noticed that when, instead of acting “normal”, you introduce some elements of balance in the relationship, the other person feels a great relief and, in turn, you are relieved as well? That relief is relief of the weight of your sin. Yes, you are still a sinner. No, it is not true that you cannot do anything about it. The relief that is created in that brief moment of encounter, is what salvation really is, for both you and the other person.
We would be the most wretched fools to believe that we can save ourselves. In the words of the Psalms we prayed, “May the clouds rain justice”, which in the Christian version becomes “May the cloud rain the Just”. It is in Jesus that we see the justice of God realized, the wholeness of the human personality beyond fear and beyond sin, which we are called to become. It is in the power of the Holy Spirit, freely given those who trust in God, that we believe in salvation for the whole world, that is, we believe despite appearances that the whole world will be freed from injustice and from terror.
I am convinced that we need to relearn our vocabulary, as it has been sidetracked for so many reasons. If we study the Bible for real, rather than using it for feeding our own religious hypocrisy, we may discover, for example, that
SIN = collaboration with the forces of oppression (external and internalized)
REPENTANCE = awareness of the above, ardent desire of stopping to collaborate
FORGIVENESS = relief of the weight on our soul, through interaction
SALVATION = is the result of the process, which we cannot control
In this time of Advent, let the mountains of our pride be lowered, let us allow God to make a new path for us, let us engage in learning the true “old but new” vocabulary of our own faith. AMEN.