Fairy tales usually begin something like this, “Once upon a time there was a princess or a frog, or an ugly duckling…”, or they might begin, “A long, long time ago there lived a widower, or a woodcutter, or an old lady…” No precise details are ever given about the date or the time in which the fairy tale takes place. Nor are we told where the action is happening. The story usually takes place in a land far far away. Time and place play no great part. Fairy tales tell a story, usually a story about fundamental human experiences, they don’t tell history.
It’s quite a different thing with today’s Gospel. Today’s Gospel is reporting history; it’s not just telling a story. It talks about a particular moment in the history of the world; it talks about a particular place in the history of the world. It doesn’t speak in generalities it doesn’t speak of a time long long ago or of a place far far away, but it speaks of an exact date and place.
The fifteenth year of the reign of the Emperor Tiberius was the year A.D. 28. At that time, Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea; Herod the Great’s two hated sons, both immoral and equally cruel, were local princes. Now for us these are probably just names. But for first century Jews there is an agonizing history of oppression behind these names. They were a ruthless, hateful, and violent group of men. And then we have the two high priests, Annas and Caiaphas, who are known to us from Jesus’ trial, they have corrupted the Temple. They’ve turned the Temple, which should be a place of prayer, into a political battlefield for power.
The year 28 was not a good year; things were not looking rosy and peaceful. For the first century Jew these were bad times filled with affliction, poverty, and hardship. It was a struggle to survive. But then in the year 28 God intervened in the history of mankind. The word of God was spoken to John in the desert. God didn’t speak to the high and mighty, the ones who oppress. This is judgment against them. God spoke to John, a humble man outside the political and religious system. He’s not a part of the palace or the Temple.
As we heard, “The word of God came to John.” God intervenes in history by calling men and women. And whenever men and women answer his call, God can work great things through them. So it was with someone like Francis of Assisi, or Mother Teresa. They heard God’s call and they obeyed. But we might ask ourselves, “How did those people hear God’s call?” How did they know that is wasn’t something they just imagined, just a self-deception? After all God doesn’t call us up on the phone. How can His voice be distinguished from all the babble of voices and noises around us.
God’s call went out to John “in the desert.” In order for God to speak to us, we must hear him. That makes sense. We must hear him. But in order to hear, we need a certain degree of quiet. That’s why John was in the desert, the silence there is so complete that one’s heart is quieted and it starts to hear. In our world today, silence has become a rare thing. That’s why it’s so important that churches be kept open during the day. Anyone looking for peace in the middle of a hectic day will find it in the space of God’s house, saturated as it is with prayer. Many people find that God speaks to their hearts in this space. They come to an inner clarity; they find consolation and help in making decisions. If peace then comes into our hearts, and it’s consistent with our Catholic faith and morals, we can be sure that it comes from God.
What did God say to John in the desert? Above all God gave John words of hope. And in return John was to give his people, and us, words of hope. He was to prepare the way for the Lord, what was crooked would be made straight, any difficulties would be cleared away, the valleys filled and the mountains leveled. John’s job was to build the highway that would help the arrival of our Lord.
John speaks to his people and to us saying, the world of Tiberius, Pilot, and Caiaphas has stunted our hope, the world has stunted our hope, so hope against all hope, because you are remembered by God, because you are remembered by God. God will act so prepare yourself. Prepare yourself with repentance. It’s time for a new mind; it’s time for a new heart, it’s time for a new set of eyes, and it’s time for a new set of expectations. God is about to act, so wake up! God is about to act, so get ready! God is about act, so make way the path for him.
John is the precursor. His story is not a fairy tale. By the path that he prepared, God really did come to us: he came to us as the little child at Bethlehem, as the Redeemer of all men and women. He comes to us now in prayer and the sacraments, Eucharist, Reconciliation. And this true history all begins with Christmas.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher Ankley