The Bible is inerrant in matters of faith and morals. Simply put, it contains what we need to know as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. When read with the eyes of faith and within the teaching of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church, it cannot lead us astray.
The Bible is a collection of writings, and it is a collection of many different kinds of writing. It contains histories, songs, prayers, biographies, letters, legal documents, parables, and other types of literature.
Today we are having a pop quiz. How many people think today’s Gospel reading started off “Long, long ago in a land far, far away, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert”?
It didn’t start off that way. Long, long ago in a land far, far away is how fairy tales start off. Today’s Gospel reading starts off 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.
Today’s Gospel reading begins with a time and a place; it begins with a litany of rules – the men who ruled the Holy Land – and, indeed, the world – at the beginning of Christ’s public ministry.
Tiberius Caeser succeeded to the throne of the Emperor of Rome in 14 A.D. and he reigned until 37 A.D. Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea from 26 to 36 AD; history remembers him as a greedy and ruthless man with little regard for the people he governed. Herod, or Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, ruled from 4 BC to 39 AD. His brother, Philip, ruled in the territory north and east of the Sea of Galilea from 4 BC to 34 AD.
In addition to the state of the civil government, Luke also records the religious leadership of Palestine at the time. Annas had been high priest for eleven years between 6 and 15 AD, when he was deposed by the Roman rulers. He was succeeded by various members of his family over the next three years, until his son-in-law Caiaphas became high priest, a position he would hold for 18 years. Though Annas had been deposed by the Romans, the people of Palestine had no great love for their overlords and Annas continued to have considerable influence for the rest of his life.
This Gospel reading begins not like a fairy tale, but like a news report. The reason for this is that it is not a fairy tale. Rather, it reports actual events from a specific time.
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.”
Not all of the Bible can be taken literally. This is a simple fact. This does not mean that there are parts of the Bible that are unimportant or that lack meaning. It simply means that there are parts of the Bible that have the whole of their meaning outside of literal events. However, there are also parts of the Bible – and great parts of the Gospel – that do record actual events… that do tell us what really happened… and communicate their meaning both in the events they record and the reality those events represent.
Today’s reading falls into that second category. John, in point of fact, went through the region of the Jordan and proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This happened. It began at a specific time, as we see from this reading. It also ended at a specific time, when John the Baptist was arrested and thereby prevented from continuing to deliver his message. It started when God called him and it ended when the world silenced him.
But – and there is a but – it ended only in terms of that it literally happened. It literally began and it literally came to an end. Beyond that, though, and transcending the end of his ministry, the message of John the Baptist lives on for us today. It has literal meaning as a historical curiosity, but far more importantly it has spiritual meaning because the message of John the Baptist lives on and is present to us today.
We are now in the Season of Advent; we are at the beginning of the second week of the anticipation of the arrival of Our Lord. It is time for us to make straight our paths. It is time for the valleys of our lives to be filled and the mountains to be made low.
It is time for our own winding roads to be made straight and smooth, and for those roads to carry us toward Our Lord and Savior. Those who desire to see the salvation of God must prepare themselves, just as was true for those who heard John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Let us take the time this Advent season to reflect on our own lives, both spiritual and physical. Let us recognize our shortcomings and respond to the Baptist’s call to repentance. Let us recognize our need for forgiveness, both forgiveness by God for our sins and forgiveness from our neighbors for the wrongs we have done. Most of all, let us all examine our hearts and make smooth the path for Christ so that He can come into our lives and walk with us on our journey toward salvation, for without Him we are lost indeed.