The Jordan River is one of the central landmarks of the Holy Land, and it has played an important role in the history of the people of Israel. It was when the people crossed the Jordan River into the promised land that they become a holy nation. Crossing the Jordan River was considered such an important moment for the Jewish people that those who wished to convert to Judaism and join the nation had themselves to physically cross through the river as the first Israelites had done before them. It is in this ritual that baptism finds its origin.
So it is not merely out of convenience that John the Baptist chooses the Jordan River as the place to perform his "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Rather, John is calling the people to prepare the way of the Lord by crossing into a new Israel ready to extend God's justice and mercy to all peoples.
For Christians, the Advent season is like a "mini-Lent" through which we prepare for the celebration of the Lord's birth. While baptism is not a central theme of this preparation the way it is during Lent, it can never be far from our consciousness since it is as central to the landscape of our faith as the Jordan River is to the landscape of the Holy Land. Through baptism we crossed into a new freedom and a new promise. Through baptism, we received the gift of faith which helped us to recognize the truth of God’s word and the power to live it out.
God has prepared a way for us through faith and baptism as he did for his people long ago. Now, through repentance, we are to prepare a way for him. The cry of the Baptist reaches our ears here today beckoning us to bring into reality the vision of a just society and to make our culture a place where Christ will be recognized and welcomed when he comes.
Is our society one which is ready to welcome its Lord and Savior? Do we live in a culture in which it is easy to be good? Do we live in a nation in which the weak are protected? If not, why not? And what can we do to make things better?
Most of us wish that the world were a better place, and we want the future to be brighter for our children. But, for the most part, we have settled into a comfortable existence, doing what we need to do to get by and hoping that everything will be okay.
However, God did not send His only Son to die on the cross so that everything would be just okay. He came to transform us and the world into a place where there is peace and harmony. God’s dream for the world is expressed by the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading. “There will be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.” It is a dream for a peace which is so deep and far reaching that even the animal kingdom participates in it.
It is not mere wishful thinking to believe that we can abolish war, that every child can be born into a loving home and that everyone can have enough to eat. It is a hope grounded in the promise of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit we have received through our baptism and confirmation. God expects us to work to make it a reality.
In his book, Bread for the Journey, the Catholic spiritual writer, Henry Nouwen, describes our mission to the world in these words:
So much of our energy, time, and money goes into maintaining distance from one another. Many if not most of the resources of the world are used to defend ourselves against one another, to maintain or increase our power, and to safeguard our own privileged position.
Imagine all that effort being put in the service of peace and reconciliation! Would there be any poverty? Would there be crimes and wars? Just imagine that there was no longer fear among people, no longer rivalry, hostility, bitterness, or revenge. Just imagine all the people on this planet holding hands and forming one large circle of love. We can say, ‘I can't imagine.’ But God says, ‘That's what I imagine, a whole world not only created but also living in my image.’
God gives us the power to make a world marked by peace and justice a reality. But we have to begin by each of us forgiving one another from the heart and praying for the grace to love our enemies. It is possible through the power of the Holy Spirit which God has poured into our hearts.
John the Baptist is the last of a long line of prophets calling the people to repentance and foretelling the establishment of a new covenant and a new Israel. Through baptism, we are made heirs of that promise, called to prepare a way for him who will come again. This new Israel is the master plan of a God who called each of us out of the exile of doubt, despair and darkness into the homeland of faith, hope and promise. Today is the day to begin making God’s vision for the world a reality, first of all in our own hearts, until He comes again to establish His Kingdom forever.