On the internet maybe you have looked at a satellite image of the world and then zoomed in to the country, the state, the city, and then your neighborhood and then finally your house. There it is, a picture of your house taken from space and available on every computer or phone connected to the internet. Looking at it this way, you can see where it is in relation to the community and the country and the world around it. It is amazing how small this can make us feel.
Luke does something a little like this in the first half of today’s Gospel – he kind of “zooms in” on a particular place and time in the history of the world by listing the names of the political leaders in Palestine. With this information, historians have been able to narrow the time period down to sometime between 27 and 29 A.D. Luke begins with the biggest, Tiberius Caesar, the emperor of the Roman Empire, and then goes down to the regional leaders, Pontius Pilate, Herod and so on, and then to the local religious leaders, Annas and Caiaphas. And finally we zoom in on the figure of a wild-looking man wearing animal skins and preaching in the desert region around the Jordan River – John the Baptist. In doing this, Luke begins to situate the story of Jesus Christ – the story of our salvation – within history. And so it is not a mythical event but one that took place at a particular time and place in the history of creation.
So this week we focus on the person of John the Baptist, the last prophet of the Old Covenant, the one foretold by the prophet Isaiah centuries earlier, who has come to prepare the way of the Lord, for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. When John the Baptist was preaching, Jesus of course had already come into the world, but up to this point he had been leading a hidden life with Mary and Joseph up in Nazareth. The Messiah was already in the world, but the world was as yet completely oblivious to his presence among them.
And to prepare for Jesus’ public ministry, John the Baptist preached a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He was not talking about something we do once and then move on from to the next thing like graduating from high school. No, he is talking about conversion, which involves a fundamental change in one’s life and as such must be ongoing.
And a necessary part of conversion is trust in God’s mercy, trusting that when we turn back to him he will indeed forgive us. We can indeed trust in God’s mercy, for it is perfect and infinite. And one of the fruits of this confidence is joy. And joy fills our first reading from the prophet Baruch, who spoke of the Lord leading Israel back to their native country after years in exile in a foreign land. While Baruch was prophesying about the actual, historical return of the Jews from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem, there is also a spiritual sense in this reading which has meaning for all of us. God in his mercy leads us from exile in a life of sin to a life of holiness, from darkness into light, from this life into the next. So even as we await with hope the second coming of the Lord who will restore all things and heal all things, we can rejoice in the promises that God has made us.
We also hear this refrain of joy in our responsorial psalm: The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy. And in the second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians: I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel.
And like Baruch, John the Baptist cries out to us in our own age as well; he calls us to repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And repentance is not a bad thing; it’s not a call to feel bad about ourselves and to wallow in misery because of our sins. But on the other hand, it’s not a call to think that we’re perfect and don’t need to change anything about ourselves – the call to repentance is a call to turn to the Lord, to open up our hearts to receive his boundless mercy, and in doing so to open our lives to the experience of true and abiding joy.
Repentance means turning towards God and away from anything that might keep us from him. It means turning away from anything that might stand in the way of receiving his mercy. It means accepting that we are worthy of receiving God’s mercy because he has declared it so – and regardless of whatever baggage of sin and guilt we may carry around with us, regardless of our situation in life. We have only to recognize our need for God and his forgiveness and then to receive it. If we don’t recognize our need for his mercy, how can we accept it? And conversely, if we think we are beneath God’s mercy, how can we accept it?
But when we accept God’s mercy, we in turn can become like John the Baptist to others: proclaiming this great gift of mercy which is available to all. And more than just proclaiming it, we ourselves ought to show this mercy to others. When we forgive others, we help others to know and understand God’s mercy. If you look closely, even in the darkness of this world there are examples: this week I read an account of a woman named Marie-Louise Girtanner, who passed away in 2014. She was a gifted pianist and lived in Paris, and was 18 when the Nazis invaded the city. By age 19, she had started working for the Resistance against the Nazis, by giving piano recitals to the occupying soldiers while secretly collecting intelligence information from them and passing it along to leaders in the Resistance. She was arrested in 1943 and was taken to a detention center for members of the Resistance, where she was tortured by a young Nazi doctor. The torture ended up destroying her central nervous system, and even after she was freed, she was never able to play the piano again. It also took away from her the ability to have children. She spent the rest of her life in chronic pain. She had always been a devout Catholic, but after the war she grew even stronger in her faith, clinging to it to give her hope in the midst of her daily struggles. She began to realize that forgiveness is not just an abstract idea, but rather has to be directed towards actual people. Forty years after the war, the Nazi doctor who had tortured wrote to her. He remembered that she had clung to her faith throughout her imprisonment, and wanted to know if she still believed in such things. She wrote back and said that she did. This led to further communication, and one day the doctor asked if he could visit her. She agreed, and when he arrived at her house, she took his head in her hands and kissed him, and as she did so, he said, “Forgive me.” She later said about that moment, “I embraced him to drop him into the heart of God.”
Is there anyone in your life who you need to forgive? Is there anyone who has hurt you, perhaps in a deep and painful way, or perhaps in a superficial yet aggravating way. Is there anyone you feel you just can’t forgive even though you know you should? Ask God to give you the grace to forgive; we can only truly forgive with God’s grace. And know that forgiveness, like conversion, isn’t usually something we do once and then move on from to the next thing. Forgiveness is ongoing, a process that takes time, maybe even years.
Forgiveness is what Jesus came to bring us. It is through his grace that we are able to forgive. When we forgive others, we are preparing the way of the Lord, we are making straight his paths, so that all might see the salvation of God.