Advent—what does it really mean for us? Are we pretending to get ready
for something that we know has already happened? Are we rehearsing for
a commemoration? Is it mainly about preparing for the biggest birthday
party of all? Why then do the liturgical readings reach way ahead to
the Second Coming?
Let me express a conviction straight out: Advent is about the incarnation. The enfleshment of the Eternal Word has indeed already occurred. In many ways, however, the Incarnation is still dawning on us, with all the connotations you can squeeze out of that word dawning—dawning in the sense of still unfolding its light against the dark, dawning in the sense of still edging into our awareness and understanding, dawning in the sense of still growing in our realization of its meaning and in its effect on our lives and on the world around us.
The broad sweep of that already-not-yet tension is abundantly present in the reading from Luke. Luke ushers John the Baptizer onto the stage in a way that connects both with the history of Israel and the sweep of the Roman Empire. Mark had already interpreted the Baptist's prophetic ministry with a line from Second Isaiah, “A voice of one crying out in the desert: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths'” (Mk 1:3, cf. Isa 40:3). When Isaiah spoke that verse during the Babylonian captivity, he was referring to the return of the Judean refugees to their homeland. And he celebrated that return using the imagery of a Near Eastern king moving in triumphant procession, his passage carefully prepared with the filling of gullies and the rectifying of roads. For Isaiah, this home-coming was a new Exodus, a fresh liberating act of their saving God.
In applying this passage to John's preparation for Jesus, Mark was saying, What we have here is a new new Exodus. John was announcing the coming of Jesus, who would lead the people in a new freedom march. The way of life that Jesus would call the people to could be fittingly called “the way of the Lord”—“Lord” having become a proper title for Jesus, in the light of Easter.
As Luke saw things, Mark didn't know the half of it. Recognizing the rightness of Mark's application of Isaiah 40:3 to Jesus and his way, Luke realized there was much to be mined in that prophetic passage, namely the verses that followed the part cited by Mark, especially the part that runs “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” For in Luke's narrative Jesus will indeed bring sight to the blind, Paul will have his eye-opening experience on the road to Damascus, and Jesus, through the mission of his disciples, will be Isaiah's “light for the nations.” The story of Jesus and the Church that Luke will tell in the Third Gospel and Acts will truly move in the direction of “all flesh” seeing the salvation of God.
Appropriately, then, Luke introduces John in the way the Hebrew Bible introduces the prophets, with full a reference to who was in power at the time. Luke is careful to include the full list of Roman and Jewish officials in office at the time of John's debut and Jesus' movement from his hidden to his public life. Jesus' emergence in Israel, emphasized through a genealogy that stretches past Abraham back to Adam, has implications for everyone everywhere.
The passage from Baruch stands halfway between Isaiah and Luke. The author of that book, who honors Jeremiah's secretary by naming his scroll after him, writes after the return from the Exile. In the spirit of “is that all there is? No, there's got to be more,” he echoes Isaiah, using the very words our evangelists quote. He presents Lady Jerusalem using the image of a priest and envisions a future restoration of the people much greater than what they found after their return from exile.
When Paul, in the beginning of the letter to his beloved Philippians, utters a prayer of thanksgiving, he is the one in exile, in prison. And his focus is all on the glory of what is still just dawning in their lives as followers of Jesus.
I am confident of this, that the one who began the good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. ... And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.
Isaiah, Baruch, the Baptist, Mark, Luke—all together they prepare us to celebrate an incarnation still dawning on us.