2ndSunday of Advent Luke 3:1-6
The call of John the Baptist
In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the lands of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrach of Abilene, during the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas the word of God came to John son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. He went through the whole Jordan district proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the sayings of the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled in,
every mountain and hill be laid low,
winding ways will be straightened
and rough roads made smooth.
And all mankind shall see the salvation of God.”
Today the gospel reading is taken from the 3rd Chapter of Luke, which describes the appearance of John Baptist before the beginning of the public ministry of the Lord. It has been suggested that originally this was the beginning of the gospel text – and that the detailed story of the birth of the saviour – which we only find in Luke – was added as a sort of preface at a later date. There is an ancient tradition that Luke visited Our Blessed Lady when she was living at Ephesus with the apostle John, and that he heard the Christmas story from her. Precious traditions, which were added to the gospel.
But today, careful old Luke begins by giving the exact historical context: Tiberius was emperor from AD 14 to 37 so the gospel events are set in about the year 29. Tiberius had been a successful general in his early days, and had established the frontier of the empire in Germany. He was also a great builder in Rome, where his new palace overlooked the forum. In AD 26, following the death of his son, he retired from public life to live in Capri, leaving the control of the empire to others. Pontius Pilate is well known to us and will appear later in the gospels. He was governor of Judea from 26 to 36 and a professional Roman administrator. We know of his reputation both from the gospels and from other sources. For example he was insensitive to the religious traditions of the Jewish people, and there are stories of him stealing money from the temple to build an aqueduct for his own purposes. He was finally recalled to Rome in disgrace for his cruelty during a stand off with a group of Samaritans.
And what of the Herod’s? After the death of Herod the Great – the Herod who met the three wise men – his kingdom was divided between four of his many children: a daughter Salome who was made governor of several districts; Herod Antipas, who got the North West; Philip, who got the North East – both of whom will appear later in the gospels; and Arcelaus who got Judea in the South. The last was far from successful, so Arcelaus was speedily replaced with a new Roman Governor – Lysanias. There is a great deal of speculation about hisidentity: although his name is mentioned in the histories of Herodotus: the dates don’t seem to match, so he is probably somebody else. Even so, in the fairly recent past a stone tablet has been discovered while a new road was being laid, which included his name, lending credibility to his actual existence.
Then there are the High Priests. Annas and Caiaphas are named, but in practice, there was really only one high priest – Annas – who had held the office for many years. In AD 18 however, as a result of a dispute with Tiberias, he was replaced by his son-in-law Caiaphas, who is described as a non-entity. So in practice, Annas continued to control everything.
So this is the historical context. You will notice the three parts: the imperial power of Rome, the local puppet kings (the sons of Herod), and the power of the temple (resting with the High Priest). It was a delicate and precarious balance, and although seemingly each was in opposition to the others, they depended on one another for their continuing survival.
So why this brief history lesson today? Remember the words of the apostle Peter at the beginning of his second epistle: “it was not any cleverly invented myth that we were repeating when we brought you the knowledge of the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”. In the coming weeks we will be commemorating the birth of the Christ child – the Son of God coming into our world and sharing our human nature. And in a special way in today’s gospel, which sets the first appearance of John the Baptist in its historical context – this is a reminder that we are dealing with real events. These real events, which can be verified from other sources as well as the gospels, are not “the stuff of myth and legend”. Indeed we ourselves are part of this history. So we will rejoice when we come to Christmas Day and once again celebrate the birth of the Christ child. Christmas is a great event in the family of the Church – our family, of which we form part, along with the Roman Governors, the family of Herod, even the High Priests. We ourselves move on – remembered by only a few – but we continue to rejoice in the reality that the Son of God has come into our world to live amongst us.