“John went through the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the words of Isaiah: ‘A voice of one crying out in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” Luke 3: 4,6.
In his gospel, Saint Luke introduces John the Baptist with great fanfare – the herald of a new age, proclaiming a kingdom of the heart.
Luke places John and Jesus and those who followed them into a historical context and painfully aware of the deep divisions between the Jewish population and their Roman occupiers.
Tiberius Caesar ruled, and Pontius Pilate was his governor from roughly 26 to 36 A.D. These powerful Romans controlled distant regions, as far west as Spain, as far north as the British Isles, and to the Middle Eastern deserts.
Their roads and culture were mainstays of the empire.
Several years ago, a friend of mine and I took a road trip from Rome down to my grandfather’s hometown in Southern Italy.
We traveled by car on the modern autostrada, which parallels the ancient Appian Way. The town of Monteverde is located in the Iripina, that portion rich agricultural land two hours to the east of Naples, and on the borders of Basilicata and Puglia, and in the Province of Avellino.
Among Avellino’s legendary citizens were figures like the poet Virgil whose writings drew on the rustic surroundings, the lemon trees with their pungent fragrance, local myths, and deities, and the powerful images of the sea.
Directly related to our gospel reading, it was also the home of Pontius Pilate whose role in the gospels provides the undercurrent of tension between Romans and Jews.
Of course, for Luke and the other gospel writers, this was the spiritual drama behind Christ’s death and crucifixion.
Two weeks ago, there was an article in the New York Times that caught my attention. Namely, the discovery of a 2,000-year-old copper ring bearing the name of Pontius Pilate found in the excavation of Herodium, an ancient fortress, and palace on the West Bank in Bethlehem.
The ring was discovered among bits glass, coins and shards of pottery in the 1960s. With advances in computer technology and photography, archeologists now believe that the ring may have belonged to Pilate or a scribe used in official correspondence. Another way by which Rome maintained tight control over its empire.
So if we listen to today’s gospel very carefully, we come to an understanding that when Rome held power over its empire by systems of trade, roads and military occupation – a new kingdom of the heart, proclaimed by John, would have a very different hold on people’s spiritual lives.
John prepared the way of the Lord by making straight his paths, and despite the journey of winding roads and rough terrain, these obstacles would be made smooth.
Which path do we take during this Advent?
Sometimes it is not an easy choice, most especially when we live in conflicting times.
Saint Paul expressed it best: the gospel of Jesus, rightly understood, proves to be a moral compass to discern what is of value – what decisions need to be made in our lives that we may be of service to one another and the broader community.
In prison and facing his death, Paul writes most encouraging words: “Because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now, I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will complete it …And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more in knowledge to discern what is of value. You filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. “
In the ruins of an ancient site, with bits of glass, old coins, and pottery, there was a signet ring and a reminder of a time when people were at the crossroads in making their decision about Jesus Christ. Pontius Pilate made his choice then, setting in place a divine consequence.
Will this Advent prepare you to make your decision for Jesus and so welcome him into your life?
Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA