Second Sunday of Advent

Reflection: The geography of Advent


“The word of God came to John … in the desert.”

With these words, Luke introduces the prophet who would prepare the way of the Lord. For Luke, John’s ministry was the pivotal point in salvation history; the new and final era was coming into being. On this Second Sunday of Advent, the desert is probably far from our imaginations. Luke wants us to think about the desert and why John was there instead of protesting around the palace or preaching in the Temple.

The desert was Israel’s birthplace. God brought the people out of slavery and led them on a 40-year desert trek to teach them what it meant to be God’s people. They needed that time to get over their servile identity. They lived those 40 years without the distractions of building homes and businesses; that long experience of being on the move taught them to rely on God alone. When they forgot the lessons of the desert, God sent them into exile for 60 years. Hardship stripped them of everything so that they could figure out what was essential.

We see similarities in the lives of people who suffer. A cancer diagnosis can force people to clarify the purpose of their life. An unexpected death reminds us that relation-ships are more important than any activity or achievement. A fire or flood often leaves people with a new sense of the relative value of their belongings. An accident often leaves us thinking about how we might have prevented it. All of the above adjust our vision in ways we probably never would have chosen.

So now in December, while everything jingles with excitement about winter and holidays, the church invites us into the desert with John. The desert is the anti-thesis of the mall. No matter how much money you have, there is nothing to buy. Far from the city lights whose twinkling grabs our attention, the desert allows us to fix our gaze on the stars, on beauty beyond our reach that was created just for our delight.

The desert is where our soul finds room to expand, where we can remember what we really thirst for. This is the experience of God’s fertile desert. This is the desert we can choose when we want its blessing.

There are also other deserts — like the desert of the U.S. southern borderlands where the poor wander, seeking something better as they bet their lives on a chance for peace and safety. There are deserts of loneliness in the midst of bustling cities. There are desert refugee camps where people spend hours waiting in line for water and years waiting for a welcome to a new homeland. These are deserts of desperation, the sort that Israel knew in her exile.

Today, these deserts have been created by the selfishness of human sin and those who suffer in these deserts are not usually the guilty. The promise of today’s readings, the promise of Christmas itself, is made for the people in these deserts.

From the desert, John tells us to prepare the way of the Lord. That means we must straighten out the tortured paths that truncate our sisters’ and brothers’ hopes as they flee for their lives, seeking a safe haven. We are called to straighten out twisted communications with words of truth and sincere compassion, even for our adversaries. To prepare the way of the Lord today, we need to muster the courage to enter the valleys of depression and desperation that trap our brothers and sisters in loneliness and fear. In our personal relationships, we are called to build bridges across the breaches that have separated us from family or friends, to forget old wounds and bend low enough to say “I am sorry.”

To prepare the way of the Lord today, we must reassess the mountains and rivers that create uncrossable borders between us as nations, parties, ideologies, genders, orientations, etc. Then, willing to see the beauty of the other side, we can descend from our heights of righteousness and let those mountains be made low. There is a lot of geography to cover if we wish to prepare the way of the Lord. This is all possible because God is already working on it.

A closer look at the gospel

The Gospel of Luke really begins here. The infancy narrative of Chapters 1 and 2 were a prologue introducing major themes. Luke opened that prologue as an orderly history so that his reader, Theophilus (the “Lover of God”), would “realize the certainty” of Christian teachings.

Luke begins here by naming seven historical figures who situate his story. The problem with his list is that no one seems to be able to defend its accuracy. His reason for naming Lysanias of Abilene remains a mystery; he is hard to identify and does not come up again in the story.

Scripture scholar Silvano Fausti points out that, by naming seven people, starting from the largest world stage and moving to the center of Judaism (the inverse of the geography of Luke-Acts), Luke indicates that he is about to tell the story of fulfillment of history. Astute readers will note that not one of the seven characters on his list will play a positive role in the new history God was inaugurating at that moment.

The next verse takes readers into the heart of salvation history. Declaring that the word of God came to John, Luke points out that God’s word was heard not in palaces or temples, but in the desert — just where Isaiah said it would be. The desert was one of the most important places in Israel’s history.

The Exodus road to freedom went through the desert. The desert was the place where former slaves, a people who did not even own their identity, were formed into a nation. There, they entered a covenant with the very God whose call made them who they were. The desert was where the people learned to fix their hopes on God. When Luke tells us that John preached throughout the entire region of the Jordan, Jews remember that river as the one they crossed at the end of the pilgrimage that they began by crossing the Red Sea.

Luke introduces us to John at the heart of Israel and on her edges. His preaching announced a time newer than the one the people had known in the Exodus. Luke presents John as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and the end of the first phase of history. Isaiah announced that God would come straight to the people. The valleys and mountains, traditional boundaries between people and nations, would be eliminated and all people would be God’s people, worshipping in God’s presence. In John’s preaching, the mountains and valleys of inequality were what people would have to abandon in order to prepare for the coming salvation.

This Sunday’s readings combine to give us great expectations. The stories of the past remind us that God’s plans are always for our good. The appearance of John the Baptist tells us that great things are afoot. It is time for us to take our place in the story.

Reading I

(Baruch 5: 1-9)

Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever:
wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,
bear on your head the mitre
that displays the glory of the eternal name.
For God will show all the earth your splendor:
you will be named by God forever
the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship.
Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights;
look to the east and see your children
gathered from the east and the west
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that they are remembered by God.
Led away on foot by their enemies they left you:
but God will bring them back to you
borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones.
For God has commanded
that every lofty mountain be made low,
and that the age-old depths and gorges
be filled to level ground,
that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.
The forests and every fragrant kind of tree
have overshadowed Israel at God’s command;
for God is leading Israel in joy
by the light of his glory,
with his mercy and justice for company.

Responsorial Psalm

(Psalm 126: 1-6)

R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

When the LORD brought back the captives of Zion,
we were like men dreaming.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with rejoicing. 
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad indeed. 
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the torrents in the southern desert.
Those who sow in tears
shall reap rejoicing. 
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves.
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

Reading II

(Philippians 1: 4-6, 8-11)

Brothers and sisters:
I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, 
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 continue to complete it 
until the day of Christ Jesus.
God is my witness, 
how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer:
that your love may increase ever more and more 
in knowledge and every kind of perception, 
to discern what is of value, 
so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 
filled with the fruit of righteousness 
that comes through Jesus Christ 
for the glory and praise of God.


(Luke 3: 1-6)

In the 15th 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.
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.”