FIRST READING Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed, she has received from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins. A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Go up on to a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by a strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.
SECOND READING Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7
Beloved: The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good. When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy, He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.
GOSPEL Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
The people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ,
The mystery of the Baptism of the Lord–with His Epiphany–are at the heart of our faith. These mysteries are less known in the Western Church than the mysteries of Christmas and Easter. In almost every way, the mysteries of the Epiphany and the Baptism are the same as the mystery of Christmas, the Nativity of the Lord. Christmas has enormous emotional overtones throughout the world and because of that, very often the understanding of preparation is lacking.
The first reading today, from the Prophet Isaiah, explains what it means to be prepared to meet the Lord: “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” Who better would understand the gravity of this eventuality than we monks here at Monastery of Christ in the Desert. Our monastery is located in a remote place. One must take a 13-mile dirt road off the highway to reach the church. The road is mountainous, windy with multiple turns and dips—this is not written to discourage anyone from paying us a visit. So, when the prophet proclaims: “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley”, we monks know what an awesome and awe-inspiring feat that would be! This is extreme preparation discernable in the physical world. But, what about our interior lives?
The second reading, from the Letter to Titus, explains even further what this preparation entails: “The grace of God has appeared, saving all and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.” St. John Chrysostom challenges us, too, when he spurs Christians: “We who are disciples of Christ claim that our purpose on earth is to lay up treasures in heaven. But our actions often contradict our words. Many Christians build for themselves fine houses, lay out splendid gardens, construct bathhouses, and buy fields. It is small wonder, then, that many non-believers refuse to believe what we say. ‘If their eyes are set on mansions in heaven,’ they ask, ‘why are they building mansions on earth? If they put their words into practice, they would give away their riches and live in simple huts.’ ” This may be easier for monks, but those living in the world approaching more revelry and excess in the upcoming days of a holiday season, it is a formidable challenge.
From Luke’s Gospel reading, people flocked to John the Baptist to seek a way to be faithful to God, or, in other words, to prepare to receive Him. There are Old Testament precedents of men and women preparing to receive a king, notwithstanding Jesus. Think of the preparation of Esther. “Now when the turn of each young lady came to go in to King Ahasuerus, after the end of her twelve months under the regulations for the women–for the days of their beautification were completed as follows: six months with oil of myrrh and six months with spices and the cosmetics for women …She would not again go in to the king unless the king delighted in her and she was summoned by name…And Esther found favor in the eyes of all who saw her” (Es 2:12-15). A person can do a great deal of changing in 12 hours, let alone a year and a half!
We are invited to believe in Jesus as the one, unique and only God. And He has come to save us. If we are baptized in Him, let us share His mercy and walk with faith. Let us steadfastly order our lives to be better able to receive His mercy. For if you desire to receive the Lord, then be prepared to change.