The Word Encountered
Happiness in Hard Times
“Take off your robes of mourning.”
There may be doubts as to the dating and the authorship of the book called Baruch, but the reality it addresses is clear. Jerusalem has fallen, destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. The book is written in exile, sent from the far kingdom of Babylon. It is a call for repentance, a reflection on true wisdom, and a promise. Despite circumstances of deprivation and desperation, Baruch is a labor of hope.
“For God will show all the earth your splendor.” Though stripped of grandeur, Israel will be led by God in joy. Even in their terrible loss, God will shower them with glory, mercy, and justice.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians is also filled with promise. A great work has been started in the community, and Paul is convinced that it will be carried to completion. What is more, he is filled with love for them: “God knows how much I long for each of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. My prayer is that your love may more abound, both in understanding and wealth of experience, so that with a clear conscience and blameless conduct you may learn to value the things that really matter up to the very day of Christ.”
High hopes and comforting words. But we would miss much of their power if we failed to realize that Paul is writing from prison. Moreover, the little Philippian community addressed with such tenderness and compassion is being besieged by external forces and internal divisions. Paul is in chains and the outlook is bleak, yet this letter is the occasion of some of the most beautiful Pauline passages: the undying affection of the first chapter, the poetic faith of the second, and the exultant reliance on God of the third. Such splendor, but in the midst of such pain.
Luke’s Gospel heightens this paradoxical affirmation of hope despite almost impossible odds. Christ’s imminent coming is announced in the first chapter, in the ominous shadow of Tiberius’s rule. The Evangelist notes that Pontius Pilate is procurator; Jerod is tetrarch; Annas and Caiaphas are high priests—all names that bode more doom than deliverance. These men are the mighty and the dangerous, the important and the awesome.
Yet hidden in the badlands of their dominion, a single voice is raised to preach repentance and forgiveness. John the Baptist, mindful of Isaiah’s promise that all shall see the salvation of God, grasps that the time is ripe. Here was this hidden man, John, a voice in the wilderness of time, who was given God’s word. “Make ready the way of the Lord.”
Beyond the rise and fall of the great nations, lasting longer than all the tinhorn dictators, who has survived? What reality is important? What word has lasted? Whose voice endures?
It is good for us to answer and remember. More than all the victories of the Caesars, the pomp of tetrarchs, and the grandiosity of the highest priests, it was the outsider, the baptizer, who addressed all history.
The truth, uttered in adversity, holds more power than all the huzzahs bellowed in triumph.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University