Prepare a way for the Lord; make straight his paths.
2 Tim. 4:5-8; Col. 2:8-12; Heb. 7:26-8:2; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 2:20-21, 40-52; Luke 6:17-23.*
The Sunday Before Theophany; the Circumcision of our Lord, God & Savior, Jesus Christ; our Holy Father Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia.
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5:53 PM 1/2/2012 — As you just heard, we have a confluence of celebrations today, with the Sunday before Theophany and the already double feast of the Circumcision of our Lord and St. Basil the Great falling on the same day, not to mention the Sunday after Nativity, which is why we have multiple Epistles and Gospels today; but, inasmuch as I focused rather extensively on the Circumcision of Our Lord last year around this time, and what our Lord's obedience to this Jewish custom means for us today, I thought that, this time around, I would simply take the brief beginning of Mark's Gospel, which was the first we heard today, and talk a little about this figure who bridges the gap between the Old and New Testaments: the last of the prophets and the forerunner of our Lord, John the Baptist.
If you have cable TV then I'm sure you're familiar with some of the many Christian evangelists who ply their trade there on the various channels. It seems that whatever your tastes or inclinations or opinions may be, there's a TV preacher for you. And you don't even have to believe in anything in particular: if you look hard enough you'll find one that will seem to be saying what you want him to say, or think you want him to say.
This situation is nothing new in the history of religion. In fact, this sort of thing was going on full force at the time Jesus began his public ministry. Palestine, at the time of our Lord, was a hot bed of holy men, so much so that the commander of the Roman Legion in Jerusalem once remarked that if he had as many troops in his legion as there were prophets and saints running around in the desert, he could conquer the whole world. I'm certain that that's an exaggeration on his part.
But knowing this history should give us a different kind of perspective when we read our Gospel lesson; because, it alerts us to the fact that when John the Baptist—and, later, our Lord—appear on the scene and begin their preaching, they are not unique, at least not in the fact that they are in the desert preaching. The Palestinian Jews and their Roman guests were well used to seeing wandering prophets in the desert. This was a fairly common phenomenon. It should give us pause to think about it because, if itinerant holy men were so much a part of every day life, and if the people were so used to seeing them, then what was it that made John the Baptist stand out so clearly in history? He isn't just mentioned in the Bible: the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote a history of the Jewish people during the reign of Claudius, mentions John quite prominently, and also our Lord. For some reason, John made an impact, so much so that he was arrested—something that had never happened before—and was ultimately executed, as the Holy Gospel testifies.
What made John stand out from among the ranks of Palestine's corps of desert preachers was what he had to say. Most of the desert prophets spent a lot of their words addressing the situation at hand, namely, Roman occupation. Some of them even had bands of followers committed to various political agendas formed around the preaching of their chosen prophet. Judas Iscariot, so the Gospel tells us, was a member of one such group before he met our Lord. Normally, these kinds of people focused on the problem of the military presence in what the Romans called the province of Galilee. But John was different. He didn't talk about the Romans, or about freedom for Israel, or about liberation from military rule. Instead, he preached that people should repent of their sins and change their lives. His message did not address the global situation such as it was, but the situation within each man, the state of his soul, how he stood personally before God. And he targeted the leaders of his own religion, not because he challenged their authority, but because he felt they had, themselves, focused so exclusively on the political situation with Rome that they had neglected the spiritual realities which he believed were so much more important. His baptism of repentance became a symbol for those who had cast aside the affairs of this life to focus on what our Lord would call, a couple of years later, the "one thing necessary”: the state of one's soul before God.
And the reaction of many of these people to John's preaching is typical, and we often see remnants of it today, especially when someone criticizes the religious point of view as trite, or some "pie in the sky" stuff that is not relevant to the modern situation nor answers the needs of today. And for those who could not see beyond the practical concerns of life, John's preaching was very confusing. They did not understand it; and, typical of men in authority, what they don't understand or can't figure out they ultimately begin to fear as a threat. This is what led to John's death, and what ultimately contributed to our Lord death on the cross three years later.
Our Lord himself would shortly confirm John's example of focusing on spiritual things in his own circumcision, which we also celebrate today. Jesus himself, remember, said that he came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them. Jesus doesn’t cancel Judaism, he completes it. His parents take him to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth because the Law of Moses commands it; and, as Jesus grows into manhood and commences his public ministry, we see him, again and again, doing everything according to the law: he went for the feasts to Jerusalem; he sent the people he had cured to the priests to perform the sin-offering commanded by Moses; he paid the temple tax every year; admonished the multitudes who came to hear him preach to obey the Scribes and Pharisees as those who sit in Moses’ place; and, even though it had been introduced long after Moses, he participated every Sabbath in the Synagogue service, fulfilling his duty to read and comment on the Word of God whenever it was his appointed turn to do so. On those few occasions where he appears at first to be violating the law, such as curing someone on the Sabbath, he is able to point out to the Pharisees criticizing him how they have misread the law; with all of his interpretations being confirmed by the Talmudic Tradition.
As we prepare to celebrate the Theophany, these solid and clear examples given to us by the Baptist and by our Lord are good subjects for our meditation. We know that the Theophany is the beginning of our Lord’s public life;—his active presence among men—and, in celebrating it, we must be mindful of preparing ourselves for the second coming of our Lord as the divine judge who will separate forever the living from the dead. The coming feast is designed to remind us that, as we prepare ourselves to celebrate Christ’s first Theophany, so we should prepare our souls to receive his second. And, at the risk of repeating myself over and over again, this means making ourselves right with God; and, making ourselves right with God means going to confession, where, in the person of the priest, Christ hears our sins and gives us forgiveness.
Before this month is out we will begin the Triodion: that brief period of two or three weeks just prior to the beginning of the Great Fast; and it is the perfect time for taking John’s words to heart: “Prepare a way for the Lord. Make straight his paths.”
Father Michael Venditti
* The readings are listed here in the order in which they are heard during the Liturgy. In the Byzantine Tradition, when more than one commemoration falls on the same day, one does not simply choose the most important as in the Latin Church, but includes the propers for all of them in the one service. The Epistle readings are all sung as one lumped together, with only the title of the first one being announced to the faithful; the same is then done with the Gospels. Thus, the priest or deacon will sing, "A reading from the Holy Gospel according to Mark," then sing all three Gospels together as one without a pause between them.