In Advent this year, the Sunday Lectionary for cycle C breaks up this long narrative between the second and third Sundays. Would a parish revisit this reading for a seasonal penance service? It wouldn’t be my choice, unless a preacher somehow was willing to work some kind of unity for it all.
It’s also a long reading, and a lot of people don’t go to confession or to reconciliation liturgies to get long doses of Scripture. Saint Luke, however, sets the scene:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip
tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah
in the desert.
And John enters to center stage, citing the prophetic tradition. Specifically, he proclaims Second Isaiah, the beginning of the book of consolation:
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance
for the forgiveness of sins,
as it is written
in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one crying out in the desert:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
Consolation isn’t the only message. The tone of the forerunner is harsh, but honest. John preaches repentance, which is a modern preliminary to a fruitful celebration of the sacrament of penance.
He said to the crowds
who came out to be baptized by him,
“You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruits
as evidence of your repentance;
and do not begin to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father,’
for I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham
from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.
Therefore every tree
that does not produce good fruit
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What then should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized
and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”
How do the people react? Not with outrage, but rather in hope that something glorious is about to happen:
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen
the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you
with the holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand
to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff
he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The author speaks above of John inciting people to come to repentance with good fruits. Making amends, where possible, is also a hallmark of Twelve-Step recovery. Thing is, there are no monitoring police in AA and other groups checking to see if group members are fruitful. All are welcome to a place in the meeting. And if one is stubborn about sincerity, it becomes obvious. It is also difficult to mine the benefits of recovery if one does not come prepared.
Likewise, penitents may find themselves challenged by harsh words–John’s or the inner voice of conscience. But God’s door of mercy is always open. John lays out a fruitful path to it and through it. It is up to each of us sinners–serious or casual–to open ourselves to God’s graces.