Who or what is a “god”? For the early Greeks, the gods were immortals possessing great powers, but also exhibiting the sort of failings and cruelty evident among mortals. These gods interacted with humans, often causing discord and confusion. As later Greeks developed a rational, philosophical tradition, belief in the gods waned. But the Romans took many Greek mythologies and combined them with other pagan gods, eventually mandating the worship of emperors.
Ancient Judaism was radically different in its understanding of God. The Jews believed there is but one God, and he alone deserves worship. He is the Creator of all things and he is completely other; he is not a part of creation, as the opening of Genesis demonstrates. And yet, being nonmaterial and completely apart from creation, he is also personal.
During Advent, we anticipate the coming of the one, true God. In doing so, we look back at the Old Testament in order to better understand and appreciate the mystery of the Incarnation. Today’s first reading is from Baruch’s great hymn of consolation for Jerusalem. The central theme of the Book of Baruch is conversion. The psalm is an invitation to renew trust in the merciful God who allows his people to be chastened so they might be purified.
The key word that appears six times in today’s reading is “glory.” This awe-inspiring glory is not simply an aspect of God’s essence, but is his essence; it shines forth throughout the earth, providing spiritual light and prompting humble worship from the people. God, splendid in glory, cares for the exiled people of Israel; he remembers them and tells of when he will lead them “in joy by the light of his glory,” accompanied by mercy and justice.
Mercy, joy and justice always accompany the work of God. When we reflect on John the Baptist, who is introduced in today’s Gospel, we usually think first of repentance and conversion. And well we should, for he came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Like Baruch, he called the people of Israel to conversion and holiness. Like Baruch, he pointed to the coming of God in glory and splendor. And God’s glory is not demonstrated in grim stoicism or petty agendas, but in mercy, joy and justice. Quoting from the prophet Isaiah (Chapter 40), John declared, “The winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” What are the winding roads but our wayward and often crooked hearts? What are the rough ways but our sinful habits?
John delivered a message that was demanding and delightful, challenging and comforting. It is demanding because God is holy and beyond our comprehension. It is comforting, for God is also personal and has come to dwell among us. His glory fills the heavens, but it will be shown in the dust and difficulties of history. It will shine forth from the Cross, this glory of sacrificial love and divine humility.
St. Luke deliberately situated the fact of the Incarnation within history. “The Evangelist evidently wanted to warn those who read or hear about it that the Gospel is not a legend,” Pope Benedict XVI said in a December 2009 Angelus, “but the account of a true story, that Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure who fits into that precise context.”
God is real, he has come, and he is coming — in glory.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.