by Fr. Tommy Lane
It must have been really big drama when everybody in Jerusalem and Judea went to meet John the Baptist by the Jordan. I think they were going to visit John because he was dressed in camel hair and wore a leather belt! (Matt 4:4) That’s what Elijah wore, a garment of haircloth and a leather belt. Obviously some expectation had built up around the person of John the Baptist. He was dressed like a prophet. Despite the temple and its liturgies being the spiritual center of the people’s lives, the people were flocking to John the Baptist. The temple didn’t satisfy. The people needed something more. They needed God close to them, not kept distant by all the layers of separation in the temple. In the temple you first entered the Court of Gentiles, then the Women’s Courtyard so named because that was only as far as women could go, then the Israelite’s Courtyard, then the priests could enter the Priests’ Courtyard, and finally once a year the High Priest and only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies. God was locked up and distant. No wonder the people flocked to John the Baptist. Even in the temple they were separated from God. They needed more of God in their lives and were not able to find the closeness of God. That closeness of God that they sought was of course Jesus, and John promised and prepared them for Jesus through baptism and repentance (Luke 3:1-6 today’s Gospel). Their longing for the closeness of God would soon by satisfied by God in the flesh in Jesus. How much closer to God could you get?
In the first reading (Bar 5:1-9) Baruch describes when the longing of people six centuries earlier to return to Jerusalem from exile was satisfied. But in describing that return, the prophet says God led them by the light of his glory (Bar 5:9). The prophet was saying that just as God provided a cloud by day and flame by night to guide the Israelites through the desert from Egypt to Canaan, the return to Jerusalem after the exile is comparable. That visible presence of God, called the Shekinah in rabbinic writings and associated with the shape of a dove (TDNT vol 6 p69; The Jewish Encyclopedia vol. 11 p260), dwelt in the temple until it was destroyed at the beginning of the exile. A Jewish tradition says when the temple was destroyed, the Shekinah Glory of God was seen leaving the temple in the form of a dove. But when the Jews returned to Jerusalem after the exile and the temple was rebuilt, the Shekinah did not dwell in the temple any more. Yet the prophet of our first reading gave us a picture of the Shekinah returning. Scripture does not lie so the first reading must be fulfilled some other way. It is. The next time we encounter a dove in Scripture is when the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan in the presence of John the Baptist. The Shekinah did not return to the temple after the exile, but in the form of a dove descended on Jesus, the transfiguration of the temple, at his baptism. What the prophet of the first reading described, even if he didn’t fully understand the complete implications or full connotations of his prophecy, is now fulfilled in Jesus’ coming predicted by John the Baptist. The return from exile was only the partial answer to the people’s longings. Six centuries later at the time of John the Baptist, the people were still longing for God, and now at last the person of Jesus, God in the flesh, will be the answer to their longing.
Times have not changed. People are still longing for the closeness of God and searching. Not only do people long for the closeness of God and search for God, God wants us to be close to him and wants us to find him. When Adam and Eve hid from God in the garden, God called out, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9) God calls out to people of all times, “Where are you?” To illustrate this, this is from the late Cardinal Basil Hume, Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, in his book To be a Pilgrim,
When adults play hide and seek with young children, the children can never lose. It would be a bad game if adults hid in some place where they could not be found…If by chance the child still fails then we go in search. Is there not something similar in God? He gives us any number of opportunities to find him. And even if we become distracted and stop looking , he will take an initiative – a happy experience possibly, or one involving tragedy or sadness – and come looking for us. He wants us. Never doubt that. It is foolish to hide from Him. (To be a Pilgrim: a Spiritual Notebook 50-51)
For us, that divine game of hide and seek is successful every day when we find God and God finds us in prayer and above all in the Eucharist. God wants to meet us every day, in the here and now. As Luke described the word of God coming to John the Baptist in the desert, he gave us a list of historical markers like no place else in Scripture (Luke 3:1-2): the Roman Emperor was Tiberius Caesar, the governor was Pilate, he names the three tetrarchs, Herod, Philip and Lysanias and finally the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. The only thing Luke omitted was the GPS location! God entered into history and wants to enter into the history of your life every day. God does this above all in the Eucharist. I would like to conclude with a quotation about the Eucharist from an Irish author, Columba Marmion.
Corporal food is first absorbed; the
organism then assimilates it to itself and in this way it conserves
life and encourages growth. The Eucharistic bread operates in an
analogous manner. While we receive it with our mouths…Christ unites
Himself to the soul…He…increases in the soul the divine life of
which Baptism has bestowed the seed. The individual changes ordinary
food into his own substance; but in receiving the Eucharist we do
not change Jesus Christ into ourselves. On the contrary, it is He,
the food of life, who transforms us into Himself. (Columba
Marmion Christ - The Ideal of the Priest 215-216)
(Columba Marmion Christ - The Ideal of the Priest 215-216)
© Fr. Tommy Lane 2018
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