4 – 5 December 2021
Today’s first reading is from the book of Baruch, one of the shorter (and less well-known) books of Sacred Scripture. Much better known is its sister (or brother?) book of Jeremiah – connected because Baruch was a close collaborator of Jeremiah the prophet, often described as his secretary. A quick reminder of the history: it was the turn of the 6th century BC. Judah and Jerusalem were under threat from the Babylonian Empire and its King Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah, the leading prophet of the day (and assisted by one Baruch) rebuked Jerusalem for its unfaithfulness to God (sins against the Law of Moses such as the worship of idols and injustice towards the poor) and he counselled that a Babylonian invasion should be seen as a divine punishment or humbling correction of God’s people and that the Jews should bow to their fate. The Jews ignored Jeremiah and tried to resist attack – but to no avail, Jerusalem was destroyed finally in 586 BC and the large majority of the Jewish people exiled to Babylon (over 3000 km away). In a twist, both Jeremiah and Baruch were carried off by some of the Jews to Egypt and there Jeremiah’s own record ends. In today’s book, Baruch himself completes the history. He travelled to Babylon to encourage and exhort the exiled Jews. That is the context of today’s first reading.
In this passage from the fifth chapter of Baruch, we find this secretary now turned prophet himself, Baruch, with the Jewish exiles gathered around him, addressing the far away city of Jerusalem in a mystical or poetic vein. Jerusalem had been destroyed, its Temple (the Temple of Solomon, the son of David) obliterated; its rich lands laid waste. But Baruch looks into the future and sees an act of restoration, the fulfilment of a divine promise that God himself will work. “Take off your garment of sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem … put on your head a [royal] diadem of God’s glory”. The exile will not last forever, God will restore, his people to their city. “Arise Jerusalem, stand upon the height, look towards the east [towards Babylon] see your children gathering from east to west … [rejoicing] that God has remembered them.” God “will bring them [the exiles] back to you, [now] carried in glory.” The difficult journey of the exiles to Jerusalem is described as being levelled or smoothed over by God’s power: “Every high mountain shall be made low, the valleys filled up to make level ground, Israel will walk [return] safely in the glory of God.” Baruch’s prophecy would come true. Babylon was conquered by King Cyrus of Persia and in 538 BC he freed the Jews, allow- ing them safe passage back to their city, Zerubbabel, of the tribe or line of David, as their King. The foundations of the new Second Temple would be laid, the walls solemnly rebuilt, the divine law in the holy city proclaimed anew.
This is the key to understanding today’s Gospel passage. John the Baptist (the last of the prophets), at the start of his ministry, recalls words from the prophet Isaiah about the return from Babylon which mirror precisely those of Baruch. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, the mountains made law, all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The original audience of the Gospel – and us too – are being invited here to see a new second divine act of restoration at work, one which far exceeds (but is foreshadowed by) the restoration spo- ken of by Baruch. What restoration is this? The evangelist is not now speaking of the exile and restoration of God’s ancient people, the Jews; he speaks rather of the entire mystery of God’s Redemption. Here too there has been an exile, not a physical one but spiritual, an exile from the joy of God’s presence in the first paradise; not a sin against the Jewish law (the law of Moses) but the sin of Adam and Eve against God’s command in the garden of Eden; the Temple destroyed is not one made in stone but the shattering of the divine image in man – Original Sin – which took place at the very beginning of human history. The second restoration, that of the Redemption, is worked by a new Son of David, announced by John the Baptist, Jesus, who comes to restore not an earthly city but a spiritual kingdom in which the souls of men will be remade, restored by divine love. Not a journey from the east, from Baby- lon, but an itinerary of Faith in which God by his child King Jesus will call his people – all people – to their heavenly inheritance. It is now this journey for which the paths will be made straight and in which the mountains of the world and the flesh, the crookedness of the devil, will be laid waste by the new salvation in Christ that God is working. This indeed is that “good work” of which St Paul speaks, destined to be brought to completion in the souls of each of us.
It is in the Psalm that the exiles returning to Jerusalem cry out with inexpressible joy, that having (as Isaiah says) suffered double for all their sins (cf. Isaiah 40:2), they return marvelling at the deeds of God. “We thought we were dreaming” they say “then was our mouth filled with laughter … What great deeds (they say) the Lord has worked for us! Indeed, we were glad.” Already on this second Sunday of Advent our holy mother the Church is preparing us Christians for the celebration of the Advent (or “coming”) of Our Saviour. Foreshadowed mysteriously in the history of Jews, we now prepare joyfully for the birth of the Messiah, who wishes, by the Christmas mystery, to advance each of us in the spiritual journey. We desire, we need, to be made new, to be restored ever more fully according to that Divine Image shown forth in the person of Jesus. We need our faults to be smoothed over, to be levelled out, by the infinite power of the Cross which is at work in the sacraments and we need to be strengthened (our souls made firm, solid) against the valleys or pits of temptation by the resolute practice of prayer. We need too the Word of God, found in Sacred Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, to make our paths straight on a journey not towards the earthly but the heavenly Jerusalem. Amen.