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Breath of the Spirit

Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments ​brought to you by DignityUSA.

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The term “salvation history” is ideal for describing what our biblical sacred authors experienced. Both the writers of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures encountered a God who worked in their everyday lives. 

Baruch 5:1-9
Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11
Luke 3:1-6

The term “salvation history” is ideal for describing what our biblical sacred authors experienced. Both the writers of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures encountered a God who worked in their everyday lives. It was those daily, historical events that they tried to share with their readers.

As we hear in today’s gospel pericope, Luke, more than any other evangelist, puts the community’s experience of the risen Jesus into the nitty gritty of human history. Based on his conviction, he initially posits the “beginnings” of the historical Jesus during the first third of the first century CE, in the Roman Empire’s Palestinian province. It was “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod, etc., etc.” John’s appearance on the salvation scene - shortly before Jesus’ appearance - wasn’t something that happened “once upon a time.” It took place in the middle of other historical happenings.

During my lifetime, we’ve been able to even more accurately place John the Baptizer in his personal historical environment. The late 1940s discovery of the original five Dead Sea Scrolls showed that the Jewish community living at Qumran in the first century BCE and first century CE, repunctuated the Isaiah 40 quote just as John does in today’s gospel pericope. (Instead of “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,’” John, following the Qumran version, proclaims, “A voice cries out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”) Among other indications, this leads experts to believe the historical John was a member of that particular community, people waiting for the imminent arrival of Yahweh, whom they believed would immediately right the wrongs they’d been suffering at the hands of their institutional enemies.

I presume it was a humongous surprise to the Baptizer to eventually discover that one of his disciples, a carpenter from Capernaum, turned out to be Yahweh, the one he and his community were anticipating. While he was looking up to the skies for God’s salvation, Jesus of Nazareth was standing right next to him, part of his everyday life.

Baruch would have smiled at the irony of John’s experience of Jesus not only being Messiah, but also Yahweh. Four centuries before, he himself saw God’s hand and presence in the return of his fellow Jews from the Babylonian Exile. Though many would have looked at their homecoming as just a political event, the prophet, with his eyes of faith, could perceive “God leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory . . . .” Historically a majority of those in Exile never noticed Yahweh leading them back to Jerusalem. They - and their descendants - remained in Babylon until the 20th century CE! Unlike the prophet, they simply didn’t notice Yahweh’ presence.

The author who always brings us back to our daily lives is Paul of Tarsus. Though he still seems to be anticipating the return of the risen Jesus in his lifetime, he reminds his community in Philippi that in the meantime they’ve been blessed not only with knowledge, but also with “perception.” He prays that both continue to increase, along with the love they have for one another, a love which makes their knowledge and perception possible.

Jesus’ initial followers not only discovered, but also became convinced that when they generously gave themselves to one another their personal history morphed into a salvation history. They were actually joining in God’s work of freeing people.

I presume most of us don’t think our personal lives are worthy of a “formal biography.” During this Advent, it might be good to remember that the historical John the Baptizer probably thought the same thing about the historical Jesus of Nazareth.


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