advent The Sánchez Archives

Year C

Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

A Spirit Quest

BARUCH 5:1-9
PHILIPPIANS 1:4-6, 8-11
LUKE 3:1-6

Among several of the indigenous cultures of the northern and southern American continents, the rites of passage for young people growing to maturity included a ritual called the spirit quest. Compulsory for boys and recommended for girls, the quest required that the individual journey alone to a secluded place; some distance from the village. After several days of fasting and meditation, it was believed that a guardian-spirit would grant a vision to the young person, a vision that would inspire and direct the course of his/her future. Once restored to his/her tribal community, the vision remained a source of strength and encouragement, particularly in times of difficulty. In a sense, the church’s annual observance of the season of Advent could be likened to a spirit quest.

During these four weeks, each of us is invited to journey away from all that would distract us from the advent of our God to that place of peace and seclusion wherein we can rediscover God’s presence without obstruction and hear God’s voice without distraction. Through fasting and prayer and by attending carefully to the special scriptural gifts of this season, we will become renewed in the visions that sustained our guardian-ancestors in the faith and directed the course of their growth as a believing community.

However, unlike the aboriginal Americans, none of us is called to embark upon this quest as a hermit; the spirit quest which is Advent is a communal pilgrimage. Travel companions to one another, we shall also find ourselves in the company of other, veteran travelers whose wisdom and experience will stand us in good stead.

On today’s leg of our annual advent spirit quest, for example, the believing community is invited to share in and be punished by the visions and insights of Baruch, Paul and Luke.

For his part, the author of Baruch (first reading) holds out a vision of a great procession of peoples from all areas of the world traveling toward Jerusalem. Once dispersed by their own sins and infidelities, they were promised that they were to be reassembled by God whose forgiveness and mercy would afford them a new beginning. Baruch’s vision of an ecumenical or universal cavalcade of peoples reminds us that no denomination has a monopoly on God. Part of the challenge of Advent is to recall that the God, whose coming we are celebrating is the God who has come and will come for all who exist; that fact should supercede and obviate every hint or suggestion of discrimination among us.

In his letter to the believers at Philippi, Paul’s vision for the community is expressed in the form of a prayer. . . That those who have opted to journey through life with Christ would continue to grow in love, and, with correct values and clear consciences live blamelessly until the day their spirit quest is concluded in Christ.

Luke shares his special vision with us through the person and mission of John the Baptizer, whose own spirit quest had led him to the desert near the Jordan river. There, in fasting and prayer, the remembered the visions of other who had gone before him (viz., Isaiah) and invited his contemporaries to do likewise. In his role as herald of salvation, John’s voice continues to speak in our midst; his call for repentance, readiness and rectitude (“clear a straight path!”) remains relevant for all who have embarked upon this annual spirit quest, hoping to see and experience yet again “the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6).

BARUCH 5:1-9

In the ancient world, much more so than today, clothing and ornamentation played a significant role in the social, economic, political and religious fabric of society. More than a protection against the elements, clothing conveyed a person’s social standing, ethnic origin, sex and political position. More importantly, and as regards its function in today’s first reading, clothing could communicate important theological and/or religious messages. For example, those who were in mourning, due to a death, tragedy or because of the imminent threat of war, shed their usual apparel and signified their grief by dressing in sackcloth and ashes (Isaiah 58:5; Jeremiah 6:26; Luke 10:13). When the specified period of mourning had come to an end, the clothes which had given outward expression to the spiritual and emotional attitude of the mourners were exchanged for regular garb. In the not so distant past, similar customs were observed among some contemporary cultures. Widows, and in some instances, widowers, dressed in dark clothing after the death of a spouse. After a “suitable” time had elapsed, the widow’s weeds were put aside as a sign that the formal period of mourning had ended. Given the significance of clothing in their society, Baruch’s contemporaries surely recognized his call to “take off your robe of mourning and misery and put on the splendor of glory from God. . .” as an indication that a “suitable” time had passed; their widow’s weeds were to be replaced by party clothes!

Although the book of Baruch has been set against the purported background of the Babylonian exile (586-538 B.C.E.) and hence reflects the mourning and suffering of that period, the unknown author actually wrote about four centuries after the exile. A Jew of the diaspora, who regarded Jerusalem as his only true spiritual home, Baruch’s author probably wrote to encourage his fellow Jews whose sufferings at the hands of their Seleucid oppressors (Greek dynasty of Antiochus Epiphanes IV et al.) were comparable to those of the Babylonian exile.

Relying heavily on his predecessor, Deutero-Isaiah, who envisioned the return of the exiles from Babylon as a second or new exodus, Baruch foresaw the return home to Jerusalem of the dispersed Jews in similar terms. Like Deutero-Isaiah, the author of Baruch did not attribute the historical circumstances and experiences of his people to politics or to a power struggle among rival nations. Rather, he regarded the suffering of exile and dispersion as a consequence of human sin and he accredited to God alone the power to save and restore Israel to its own land.

Beckoning Jerusalem to look to the east (v. 8), i.e., to the place where each new day is born at sunrise, Baruch summoned his contemporaries to rejoice at the word of the Holy One (v. 5) in whose promise they would find forgiveness, reconciliation and salvation. Baruch’s vision exudes the spirit of messianic anticipation which flourished in the troubled centuries before Jesus and has continued to feed the hopes and joys of those who await Jesus’ second coming. As our spirit quest draws us nearer and nearer to Christmas, Baruch’s words remind us that now is the suitable time for shedding the cloak of selfishness and materialism in order to be clothed with the garments of mercy, kindness and justice.

PHILIPPIANS 1:4-6, 8-11

Paul’s personal spirit quest for Christ and the good news of salvation had led him to several ports of call, countless cities and a myriad of experiences. No stranger to suffering, Paul had been arrested, beaten, hauled into court, stoned, shipwrecked and adrift at sea. He had endured hunger, thirst, sleepless nights, hard work and the daily pressure of anxiety as regards his converts (2 Corinthians 11:24-28). At the time he wrote to the Philippians Paul was in prison and yet none of the hardships that must have taken a heavy toll on him are in evidence in his correspondence. As a result of his Damascus experience (his conversion), Paul had divested himself of his former way of life and had put on the Lord Jesus Christ. Armed with the truth and wrapped in the cause of the gospel, Paul was a formidable defender of the faith and a dauntless servant of Christ. It was his hope that those whom he brought to Christ would be similarly strong and persevering.

Paul had met the Philippians (Acts 16:12-40) during his second missionary journey, ca. 50 C.E. The first Christian foundation in Europe, Philippi proved to be an excellent site for evangelization due to its strategic location on the pass that linked the east (Asia) to the west (Europe). A thriving center of trade and commerce, Philippi was home to a large number of veteran Roman soldiers and their families, a substantial Greek population and a small Jewish community. It was among the Jews who met weekly for their sabbath prayers near the river Crenides that Paul began his work. However, judging from the majority of Greek names among his converts and keeping in mind the efforts of the Judaizers to thwart his work among the Jews, Paul appeared to have had greater success among the gentiles who heard him preach.

With a prayerful word of praise and encouragement for those who had come to believe in Jesus as a result of his ministry, Paul exhorted the Philippians to carry on and to make even greater efforts for the Lord. Confident that it was God who had begun the good work of salvation in Philippi, Paul was equally sure that God would bring that good work to completion. In Greek, the phrases “has begun” and “will carry through to completion” were actually technical terms for the beginning and end of a sacrifice. Paul would have each of his readers understand their life as a believer as a progressive sacrifice, a process of living and giving, of dying and rising, of serving and saving, all of which is God’s work within the individual. In reference to this text, Karl Rahner (The Greek Church Year, Crossroad Publication Co., New York: 1994) explained that we are all the work that God has begun and will see through to completion through the glorious power of grace. Frail and helpless as we are, we whose Christianity is always running down and atrophying, we whom the daily stream of life is always threatening to swallow up, can rest assured that we are not left to our own devices. God is indeed at work within us.

In as much as believers cooperate with the power of God within, each will grow in holiness until the “very day of Christ” (v. 6). Whereas his Jewish contemporaries still awaited the long-promised Day of the Lord, Paul understood that that day had indeed arrived in the person and through the mission of Jesus. Paul and the early Christians also referred to the parousia or second coming of Jesus as “the day of Christ.”

While we still await that great day, Paul reminds us that the gift of grace is ever present, making our love abound, deepening our understanding clearing our consciences, teaching us true values and enabling us to conduct ourselves blamelessly - so that the good work that has been begun in us will come to completion in God.

LUKE 3:1-6

If you listen very, very attentively, as today’s gospel is proclaimed, you can almost detect the cadence of a drum roll in the background. Luke Timothy Johnson (The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1991) has suggested that Luke’s description of the historical situation at the time Jesus began his public ministry could be understood as a chronological drum roll. In these few verses, Luke sets the scene for his readers and situates Jesus’ appearance “smack-dab-in-the-middle” of human history. A transforming event, the ministry of Christ reaches across every dimension of time, past, present and future, and brings the presence of God to bear upon every aspect of the human experience. For Jesus’ contemporaries, that experience was greatly influenced by the power of imperial Rome on the one hand and the Jewish hierarchy on the other.

According to the Roman calendar, Tiberias ruled the empire from August 19, 14 C.E. to 37 C.E. Therefore the fifteenth year of his reign would have been 28-29 C.E. However Luke probably followed the Syrian calendar which began on October 1; hence the year John’s heraldry and Jesus’ inaugural mission was probably 27-28 C.E. Pilate presided over the area from 26-36 C.E. and Herod was tetrarch from 4 B.C.E. to 34 C.E. Although Caiphas was high priest at this time (18-36 C.E.), Annas who had preceded him (6-15 C.E.) remained so influential that Luke was able to speak of the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiphas! Within this secular desert of human need, a prophet repaired to the desert near the Jordan to announce the day of salvation as well as the one who would make it happen.

John the Baptizer’s mission and message were described by the evangelist in terms reminiscent of Deutero-Isaiah’s words of consolation for Israel (Isaiah 40:3ff). But whereas the sixth century B.C.E. prophet envisioned “the way” in the desert as the geographic route which his contemporaries would travel home after their Babylonian exile, John called his first century C.E. contemporaries to prepare the way of the Lord in their hearts. The windings of sin and the rough ways of selfishness, the mountains and hills or arrogance and pride, the valleys of discouragement and despair were to be made right and true and docile through conversion, prayer and a baptism of repentance. This being done, the Lord, through the person and mission of Jesus would come and make his home on the hearts of all who believe.

While it may not be immediately evident, Luke departed from his fellow synoptics in that he quoted more of the Isaian text than they. Mark and Matthew concluded their description of John’s mission with the phrase, “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Isaiah 40:3 = Mark 1:3, Matthew 3:3); but Luke went on to include Isaiah 40:5, “and all humanity shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). Just as he had taken care to situate the coming of Jesus within the secular (Rome) and sacred (Judaism) framework of the then known world so also did Luke wish to affirm that Jesus’ words and works would extend the salvation of God to every aspect of that world.

As this Second week of Advent moves us ever closer to the source of our spirit quest, we celebrate the fact that the world is still experiencing the saving power of our God. The love of God, the word of God, the Son of God is for all people. Inasmuch as we are true to that love, faithful to the word and responsive to the Son we also will see the salvation of our God.

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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