Let’s look at today’s gospel.
It describes John the Baptist entering on the scene of history. It’s a God-moment, an Advent moment. One beginning of the Gospel story is the Holy Spirit coming on Mary of Nazareth and she conceiving the Messiah. This is another, some 30 years later, with the word of God coming to John son of Zechariah and he proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It’s a moment of hope. A door is opened.
St Luke begins by setting this coming within the history of the time. Years were often measured then by reference to rulers. So, ‘in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign…’ Then other men of power are mentioned. There are seven of them, a symbol of completeness. The list begins at the top with the Roman Emperor, then mentions Rome’s man in Judaea, Pontius Pilate, then Rome’s three puppet kings in the area, Herod Antipas, Philip, Lysanias, and finally, the holders of political and religious power among the Jews, Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas. We’re left with a sense of the world’s order and power, of empire and high priesthood. It sounds good on first hearing. But at least 5 of these 7 were not ‘nice men’, 4 of them played an active part in the death of Christ, and one of them in the death of John the Baptist. It’s indeed the world that’s being evoked here: a place, a set-up, a system which is out of harmony with God, resistant to him, actually oppressive. What St Luke is painting here is humanity in prison.
Then, quite unexpectedly, on the fringe of civilisation, in the wilderness, the word of God comes to John, the son of Zechariah. It had already come to a young woman in a disreputable village. Now it comes to this young man. Suddenly, there is a prophet, a voice in the wilderness. Suddenly, a key turns, a door of mercy is opened, a way out of the prison. Suddenly, there’s an opportunity for burdens to be lifted, debts to be cancelled, sins to be forgiven.
This isn’t just past history. It’s recalled in the liturgy and the liturgy makes it present, real, and now, for us. It becomes present in the liturgy, because it’s present in Christ and Christ is risen from the dead and alive. And where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there.
John, Luke says, ‘went through the whole Jordan district proclaiming a baptism of repentance.’ There’s a meaning here. The baptism of John is not our Christian baptism, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. That comes later. But it is an anticipation of it. In John’s time, a non-Jew became a Jew, a member of the Chosen People and a child of the Covenant, by being baptised. So, by offering baptism to his fellow-Jews, he was offering them the chance to become Jews again, to become true children of Abraham. And doing this by the Jordan makes the same point again. It was through the River Jordan that God’s people entered the Promised Land, the gift of the Covenant. John was asking them to pass through the Jordan again, to become real children of God at last. Advent says the same to us: please, says Advent, finally become Christians. Prepare a way. Enter, through the door of mercy, into the space of grace, the year of grace, which the Lord has opened up for us.
I was born shortly after the death of King George VI and the accession of his daughter Elizabeth. But my birth certificate doesn’t say, I was born ‘in the first year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth.’ We don’t say of ourselves that we’re living in the whatever year of the presidency of Barack Obama or premiership of David Cameron or first ministership of Nicola Sturgeon. We are living in the year of grace, 2015. Doubtless, the secularists would like this changed, and there are indeed alternatives. But it is an eloquent symbol that we measure time from the birth of Christ, the true king. It means that the powers of this world, legitimate in their place, need not lay hold of us or oppress us. The Caesars and Procurators and Tetrarchs are all still there, and the bombs are falling. But something else is also there, the something John gives voice to. A door has been opened, a space of grace, a time of mercy, always available, indestructible in the risen-ness of Christ.
‘A voice cries in the wilderness: prepare a way for the Lord.’ Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled. The call on us is to make our life this way – to raise its depressions and level its arrogances – to make it a smooth path for the Lord to come to us and we to him.
Next Sunday, the Door of Mercy in this Cathedral will be opened. It hasn’t been easy to locate it, but we have now. It will be at the foot of the Blessed Sacrament aisle. It will be a door into a Way of Mercy. As we approach, we’ll pass in front of our Lady of Aberdeen, holding her new-born child. As we enter, we’ll find ourselves beside the mosaics of the Way of the Cross. On our left will be the confessional, the place for the sacramental forgiveness of sins. Before us will be the presence of the risen Christ in the Tabernacle, and above that a bright, new icon of the merciful Christ. That is the way of mercy first opened by John the Baptist, pointed out to us so strongly by Pope Francis. ‘Winding ways will be straightened and rough roads made smooth. And all mankind shall see the salvation of God.’
May it be so for us this Christmas, this Year!