Monday, December 3, 2012

Who is crying out in the Desert?

Second Sunday of Advent Gospel Reading:

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.

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." (Luke 3:1-6)

Also, in the Gospel of Matthew it reads:

"Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. John tried to prevent him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?' Jesus said to him in reply, 'Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.' Then he allowed him. After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened (for him), and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove (and) coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'" (3:13-17)

Why not St. John the Priest?

One gets the impression from reading the Gospels that St. John the Baptist was highly respected by the Jews. For that reason, among many, he made a superb forerunner of the Messiah. When St. John the Baptist spoke, people listened! Even sixty years after his death, close to the turn of the first century, Josephus, a Jewish historian, wrote the following about this renowned prophet: “Now many people came in crowds to him, for they were greatly moved by his words. For Herod had killed this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God.” We sometimes forget that this "good man" came from a priestly family. His mission was not only to point out the person of the Messiah; but he was also to point to the new priesthood. Ironically, St. John the Baptist would not accomplished his mission in the Temple as one would expect. Instead, the river Jordan near the frontiers of the wilderness would serve as his pulpit.

First, it is important to note that the Levitical priesthood in the Old Testament was not so much a matter of personal choice or calling, like it is in the Catholic priesthood, but rather it was transmitted from the father to the son. What is more, a Jewish priest had to belong to the tribe of Levi (Moses and his brother Aaron belonged to this tribe).

It begs the question: Why is St. John the Baptist baptizing in the river Jordan and not officiating as a priest in the Temple like his father St. Zachariah did? After all, the announcement of his birth took place in the Temple. Perhaps, for this reason, St. John the Baptist was an enigma to the Sanhedrin of his day precisely because he was not “John the Priest” (The Sanhedrin was the “Magisterium” or hierarchy of Judaism composed of Pharisees, Scribes and Sadducees in the first century). But when, at his circumcision, St. Elizabeth had given this prophet the name of John instead of Zechariah or some other family name, it was an indication that the ministry of St. John would somehow break with tradition.

We take it for granted that St. John the Baptist was a baptizer. It is worth noting, however, that baptism was not a central or commonly practiced ritual in Judaism at the time. However, it was one out of three rites of initiation. If a Gentile wanted to become a member of the Jewish Church he had to get circumcised, undergo baptism and then make a sacrificial offering. Baptism, therefore, was seen as having application to outsiders only. Reading between the lines, one could infer from St. John the Baptist's calling of the Pharisees and Sadducee's to repent and be baptized, that they would soon be outsiders to the New Covenant; that is, if they did not repent and undergo a new kind of baptism.

The New Priesthood: Of the Spirit

Up to the time of St. John the Baptist's first appearance, the sons and daughters of Abraham were the chosen people of God by virtue of their ethnic heritage and religious affiliation. But all that would change with the New Covenant Church. As Jesus himself would later say, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth; and indeed the Father seeks such people to worship him. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in Spirit and truth.” Worshiping in Spirit and truth would necessitate repentance from sin and the practice of virtues. The message was clear: Being a descendant of Abraham but not an imitator of Abraham would make one an outsider as far as God's family is concerned.

Although the New Covenant religion would receive its life from the Spirit, it did not dispense from rituals and sacrifice as such. Indeed, a new priesthood and a clean sacrifice would be inaugurated with the coming of the Messiah. As the prophet Malachi foretold in the Old Testament, “For from the rising of the sun, even to its setting, my name is great among the nations; And everywhere they bring sacrifice to my name, and a pure offering; For great is my name among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.” And St. John, the son of Zechariah, and a descendant of Levi, would point out for the New High Priest and the Lamb of God for all to see. In fact, in the Gospel of John the Baptist said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” And upon this Lamb, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.”

God Speaks Again: The Spirit Returns

The preaching of St. John the Baptist helped ushered in a new Priest, a new sacrifice, and a new priesthood.

"After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, 'This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.'"

“The heavens were opened for him.” The importance of these words cannot be overstated. Just before God “baptized” the world with a global flood, he assessed the sinfulness of mankind and “regretted that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was grieved.” The Lord then promised to do something which would prove more fatal than the flood itself. He said, "My spirit shall not remain in man forever, since he is but flesh." As if to say, “Okay. You don’t want me. Fine! I will leave you at the mercy of your own devices.” So, God went up to heaven, thus taking his Spirit, and the doors of heaven were closed to man. From the days of Noah to the Incarnation of Christ, humanity did not benefit from the moral aid of divine grace. Each person was at the mercy of his weak human nature. As one peruses the pages of the Old Testament and the books of ancient history, one cannot help but notice the barbarity and cruelty of man; even among God’s chosen people. Such was the world without the Holy Spirit.

From about 500 B.C. to the time St. John the Baptist raised his voice in the desert, the voices of prophets were silenced. In other words, for about four to five hundred years leading up to the time of Christ, God had not sent any prophets to the Jews. Which prophet broke that silence? St. John the Baptist! What is more, when he baptized the Son of God in the river Jordan, God the Father himself finally spoke again: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” The doors of heaven were opened and God the Father sent out his Dove in order to find a resting place (much like Noah sending a dove from the ark in order to find dry land). His Spirit, which had been withdrawn from the world in Genesis chapter 6, once again descended to earth and rested on his Son. Perhaps, this is why St. John said, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him.” In other words, the Spirit of God who had appeared in the form of a dove did not go back up to heaven; he was here to stay!

The public declaration of the Father’s love for the Son was accompanied by the anointing of the Spirit. Jesus would later say of himself in the synagogue: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me.” These words from the prophet Isaiah signify a kind of consecration or priestly ordination. The words of paternal affection with which the Father spoke to his Son in the Gospel of Matthew finds its parallel from Psalm 110 in which he also says, “In holy splendor before the daystar, like the dew I begot you. The LORD has sworn and will not waver: Like Melchizedek you are a priest forever."

Priestly Ordination of a Messiah:

In the river Jordan, St. John, the son of Zechariah the priest, baptized the Son of God. But this was not just a baptism of water. No. This was a kind of ordination from the eternal Father to his eternal Son. Perhaps, this is why St. John could proclaim: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Christ, as we have seen, is not only the Lamb to be sacrificed but a priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

“It is even more obvious if another priest is raised up after the likeness of Melchizedek, who has become so, not by a law expressed in a commandment concerning physical descent but by the power of a life that cannot be destroyed.” (Hebrews 7) At the river Jordan a new priesthood was inaugurated through which “the power of life” would be communicated to the world. This priesthood is to be found in the Catholic Church. Indeed, the Catholic priesthood is the hope of nations precisely because it communicates the Spirit which embodies the love and the eternal anointing from the Father to the Son.

Christ was “raised up after the likeness of Melchizedek” from the waters of the river Jordan. Tradition has it that the Lord was baptized where Joshua crossed the Jordan. After forty long years in the desert, Joshua and the Levitical priests led the Israelites across the river into the Promised Land. This crossing was immediately memorialized by having one man from each tribe erect a stone. In the book of Joshua chapter 4 it reads:

“…the LORD said to Joshua, ‘Choose twelve men from the people, one from each tribe, and instruct them to take up twelve stones from this spot in the bed of the Jordan where the priests have been standing motionless. Carry them over with you, and place them where you are to stay tonight…these stones are to serve as a perpetual memorial to the Israelites.’”

St. John the Baptist may have referred to these stones when he said to the crowd, “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” The baptism of Christ, it would seem, signified a crossing from the land of darkness to the Promised Land of Heaven; a crossing that was to be led by Jesus and his faithful priests. It was appropriate, therefore, that the heavens opened up above the Son of God who had received the anointing of the Holy Spirit in the river Jordan.

From Shem, to Abraham, to Christ:

Melchizedek (Genesis 14) was a King-Priest of Salem (later to be Jerusalem) who blessed Abraham with bread and wine. According to the ancient Rabbis, Melchizedek was none other than Shem, the eldest son of Noah who inherited his blessing. It was through Shem that God’s blessing would continue. From the Ark of Noah, which landed in the mountains of Ararat (modern day Turkey), Shem migrated to a land that would later be known as Israel. He then founded the city of Salem and consequently built a castle or a palace there.

Abraham, Melchizedek's (or Shem's) great, great, great etc., grandson, inherited the blessing from Shem (who inherited the blessing from Noah, and Noah from God). And part of that blessing was the inheritance of the land that belonged to Shem. Unfortunately, Salem, as well as the surrounding land that belonged to him, was seized by the Canaanites centuries later (a ruthless pagan people who sacrificed their children to the god of Baal). Approximately four hundred years after Joshua and the Israelites migrated to the Promised Land from the desert, another king, King David, reclaimed Salem (renamed Jerusalem) and built his palace on the ruins of Melchizedek’s palace.

Some three years after his baptism, Jesus Christ- who was a priest according to order of Melchizedek -celebrated the Last Supper by consecrating bread and wine into his body and blood in the Upper Room. It just so happened that the Upper Room was built over what was once David’s palace and tomb. It was on this historic spot that the priesthood of Jesus Christ was not only fashioned after the likeness of Melchizedek but was put into effect on the ancient ruins of Melchizedek's palace. And it is from this room, on Holy Thursday, that the renewal of the world would begin.

As St. Padre Pio once said, "It would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do so without the Holy Mass." The consecration of the bread and wine into the glorified substance of the Risen Christ is but the beginning of that total transfiguration of the universe. Indeed, the Fathers of the Church taught, and without apology, that God created the world for the Church; that is, for the elect who would be saved by the blood of Christ. And Jesus himself said that the meek would inherit the earth.

Today the earth seems to be under the dominion of the ungodly. But in Psalm 2, God the Father made a promise to God the Son, and that is to reclaim what has been lost. "I will proclaim the decree of the LORD, who said to me, 'You are my son; today I am your father. Only ask it of me, and I will make your inheritance the nations, your possession the ends of the earth.'" (Psalm 2:7-8)