Fourth Sunday of Advent, Sermon #2, by Bishop Geremia Bonomelli, D.D.

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and Philip his brother tetrarch of Iturea and the country of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilina, under the high priests Annas and Caiphas: the word of the Lord was made unto John the son of Zachary, in the desert. And he came into all the country about the Jordan preaching the baptism of penance for the remission of sins, as it was written in the book of the sayings of Isaias the prophet: A voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight His paths. Every valley shall be filled: and every mountain and hill shall be brought low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways plain. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God. – Luke 3:1-6

Such is the Gospel of this Sunday, the fourth and last of Advent. In it mention is made of the mission of John Baptist and of his preaching. During these days the Church, being wholly intent on preparing her children for the coming of Jesus Christ, goes on repeating the words which the Precursor addressed to the Jews to stimulate them to make ready for the coming of the expected Messias. Let us listen to the words of the Precursor, and, more docile than the children of Israel, let us endeavor to put them into practice.

The greatest fact of our religion is the fact of the Incarnation, a fact by which God became man and appeared and lived in the midst of us. All the Old Testament, its rites, its laws, its sacrifices, and its prophecies converge toward and center in this one fact, and to this fact is directed and with it is intimately bound up all the whole Christian economy; it is the foundation-stone of our entire and most holy religion. The fact, then, of the manifestation of the Man-God, of Jesus Christ in Israel, should be certified in the most solemn manner, so as to make impossible any doubt should science later on attempt to obscure or deny it. Saint Luke begins the narrative of the public life of Jesus Christ, or the manifestation of the fact of the Incarnation, after the manner of an historian, determining the time when it took place with the greatest possible accuracy. We will let the sacred historian himself speak: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Ccesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and Philip, his brother, tetrarch of Iturea and the country of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilina, under the high priests Annas and Caiphas.” Here he names Tiberius Caesar and specifies the year of his reign, namely, the fifteenth. He also names Pontius Pilate, the representative of the emperor in Judea. Herod, who slaughtered the innocents, left his kingdom to his sons, and, as they quarreled among themselves, Augustus divided it into four parts, or tetrarchs, giving one to each, as the Gospel expressly says.* After describing with great precision the political state of the kingdom of Israel, Saint Luke also refers to the religious government and says that Annas or Ananus and Caiphas ruled as high priests. According to the law of Moses there should be, and in reality there had always been, only one high priest, but at the time of Christ the high priest Annas or Ananus was deposed, through the influence of the Romans, and Caiphas, his son-in-law, chosen in his stead; but whether it was that Annas was rich and powerful, or that Caiphas, who had been chosen in his stead, was his son-in-law, or that the people continued to regard Annas as the lawful high priest, he still exercised his office together with his son-in-law Caiphas. Hence Saint Luke says that at that time there were two high priests, simply giving the fact without approving it.

Saint Luke wished thus correctly to name the civil and religious rulers of the time, in order, first, to show that his narrative of the events regarding Jesus Christ was historically accurate; next to make clear that civil rule had passed from the hands of the Hebrews, and that the prophecy of Jacob had been fulfilled; and further, because the persons named were all intimately connected with the life of Christ, which he was writing.

The civil and religious affairs of Israel being as narrated, what happened? “The word of the Lord,” as Saint Luke says, “came to John, the son of Zachary, in the desert We know from Scripture and tradition that John Baptist from his very infancy was filled with the Holy Ghost and that while still a youth he had withdrawn to the desert and lived an austere life, as we have said elsewhere. The manner of life embraced by John Baptist was not a new one; we find many illustrious examples of it among the prophets and among those known as the School of the Prophets. John lived in the desert, and his life was one of silence, penance, and prayer, yet he was certainly not unknown to many of his fellow-countrymen. But up to this time his voice had not been heard, and he would seem to have shunned all intercourse with men. Then, that is, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, God made known to him either by interior inspiration, or by the ministry of an angel, or in some other way, that the time had come for him to enter upon his mission, and, obeying the voice of God, John came forth from the heart of the desert, where he abode, “and came into all the country about the Jordan.” The Jordan descending from Libanus, traverses a great part of eastern Palestine, feeds the Lake of Genesereth or Tiberias and empties into the Dead Sea.

So John coming out from the desert appeared along the Jordan, passing through the towns and villages on either shore and preaching to the multitudes that went out to hear him. And what was the burden of John’s preaching? In the Gospel of Saint Luke and in the other Gospels we get an idea of the truths which the Precursor announced, and in the passage read to you the Evangelist sums up the preaching of the Baptist in one short sentence: “He preached the baptism of penance and the remission of sins.” He preached the necessity of doing penance in order to obtain the pardon of sin, and a token of this penance was the baptism which he administered in the Jordan.

There are two sorts of penance, my friends; interior penance or the penitence of the heart, and exterior, which consists in some act of mortification, such as fasting, abstinence, and vigils. The interior is the soul of the exterior, and without it the exterior is worthless. Penitence of the heart is so necessary, that without it it is impossible to obtain the pardon of sin, and without it even the omnipotent God could not condone sin. Sin comes from the heart or the will; the heart conceives it and begets it, and it is therefore necessary that the heart should reject it, cast it out, and utterly destroy what it has so sinfully willed. Such is interior penitence or the sorrow of the mind, which destroys sin and reconciles the soul with God. There can be and often is interior penitence without acts of exterior penance, as when the penitent can not perform such acts or has neither the time nor the strength to do so; thus the thief on the cross obtained pardon though his penitence was only that of the heart.

There may also be acts, and great ones, of exterior penance, such as fastings, scourgings, and almsgiving, without penitence of the heart, as in the case of the Pharisees, according to the words of Our Lord. All exterior penance is worthless if the heart is not repentant, and hence the prophet cried out to the Jews: “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” It is best, then, to unite interior penitence and exterior penance, and during these days we should endeavor to practise the first by detesting sin and getting ready for a good confession; and the second by at least observing the double law of fast and abstinence, enjoined by Holy Mother Church.

The baptism of John, as I have already said, had not the power to take away sin; it was an act of humility, a token of interior penitence, and a preparation for the baptism of Jesus Christ; our penitence, united with confession, is a second baptism and by its inherent virtue takes away all sin.

My friends, crowds went out to the Jordan to receive the baptism of John and thus prepare themselves to receive the Messias, whose coming he announced as at hand; and we during these days can go to the blessed laver of confession much more easily than they went to receive the baptism of John, and thus prepare ourselves holily to receive Jesus Christ into our hearts and joyfully to celebrate His nativity.

Saint Luke quotes the words of the prophet Isaias, who five centuries before had spoken of John and of his preaching, saying: “A voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight His paths.” Certainly the Precursor, into whose mouth Isaias put these words, had no idea of speaking of material ways and paths, but if I mistake not, his meaning was this: “When a great personage, such as a king, is expected, the people set themselves to put in order the roads over which he is to pass; they clear away all obstructions, they straighten and clean them; so also you Jews should put in order, not the material roads, but your minds and hearts; you should also clear them of all obstructions, make them straight and clean, so that you may worthily receive the Saviour of the world.”

As in the material order the straight way is that which ought to be followed, so also in the spiritual and moral order, he who lives according to reason and faith is said to walk in the straight way, to live uprightly, and is called an upright man. This is both the language of Scripture and that of common usage. So, also, he who swerves from the rules of reason and faith is said to walk in the crooked way. Truth and faith, and as a consequence virtue, which is truth and faith in practice, may be represented as a perfectly straight line, and so also may error and vice be represented as a line more or less curved or crooked. When, therefore, the Precursor cries out: “Make straight the ways of the Lord,” he means for us to give up error, to flee vice, to abandon sin, and to return to the straight way, the way of truth and virtue. Now what is badly twisted can not be straightened without an effort and without pain. If a foot or an arm is dislocated the surgeon can not reset it without giving pain, and the pain will be in proportion to the gravity of the dislocation. It is the same in the moral order; it is impossible without sorrow to leave off sin, to reform evil habits and reduce the rebellious passions to obedience; sorrow is a necessary condition of a return to grace and of a reconciliation with God. This is why the Precursor couples together penance and making straight the way of the Lord: “Do penance; make straight the way of the Lord.”

Isaias, as cited by Saint Luke, goes on: “Every valley shall he filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough way plain.” This is but a development of the idea expressed above: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths.” This metaphorical and spirited language of the prophet likely means that the proud and the haughty, before being filled with God’s grace, must abase and humble themselves and know and feel their own miseries. As you know, water does not remain on lofty heights, where it is beaten by wind and storm and dried up by the heat of the sun; it runs down into the valleys and clothes them with golden harvests and green meadows. Substantially, Isaias in these words said what Our Lord later on said in the more simple language of the people: “Whoso exalts himself shall he humbled; and whoso humbles himself shall be exalted.”

At this season He who is rightly called the Highest humbled Himself even to be made man, a child, the lowliest and poorest of children, and He was born in a stable. Let us also, then, humble ourselves, or rather acknowledge our misery, our nothingness, and then shall we have the joy of seeing Him by a living faith and of growing into His likeness.