I WILL CALL YOU WITH A NEW NAME
Statistics say that 90% of women do not like themselves and try in every way (by imposing diets, doing aerobics, choosing a new look, resorting to cosmetic surgery) to improve their image. The ancients—for whom their names signified the person's characteristics—would have defined these efforts as the search to give oneself a new name, attempts to redo one's name.
God loves to change the connotations and names of people, cities, and people. He called Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Simon and gave them a new name. He transformed Jerusalem, the city in ruins, ‘the slave,’ ‘the sad and withered widow, into a city called ‘Graceful,’ ‘Jewel,’ ‘Peace of Justice and Glory of Piety.’
We may feel hopelessly chained to a name we know we deserve, even though no one has ever addressed it to us: ‘Alcoholic,’ ‘Drug addict,’ ‘Gambling slave,’ ‘Sexually corrupt,’ ‘Unfaithful,’ ‘Dishonest,’ ‘Untrustworthy’... It is the painful condition from which God wants to free us. He comes to reveal to us the name by which He calls us from all eternity.
By what name might we refer to our nation, our Christian community, our family? Would we call them: a place of peace, of sharing, of justice, of brotherhood, or would we wait for the Lord to visit them and give them a new name?
God took a great risk by giving people freedom: he placed himself in the condition and the possibility of seeing his love rejected. But if he has decided to play this game, it is difficult to imagine that he could come out of it defeated. One day he will call each one by the new name that his love will have indicated.
To internalize the message, we will repeat: "Everybody will see the salvation of God."
First Reading: Baruch 5:1-9
Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever: wrapped in the cloak of justice from God, bear on your head the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name. For God will show all the earth your splendor: you will be named by God forever the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship.
Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God. Led away on foot by their enemies they left you: but God will bring them back to you borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones. For God has commanded that every loft y mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God. The forests and every fragrant kind of tree have overshadowed Israel at God’s command; for God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company. —The Word of the Lord.
In Israel, the woman who lost her husband or a child would wear mourning garments, covering her head with a veil. Grief-stricken, she would sit on the ground, not prepare food, wash, or anoint herself with perfume. Thus, she manifested her despair. The reading compares the city of Jerusalem to a sad widow whose children have been torn from her arms with brutal violence: she sits disconsolate, covered with the garment of mourning and refusing any word of comfort.
The reference is to one of the most dramatic events in the history of Israel: the destruction of the holy city, the devastation of its territory, and the deportation of its inhabitants. As a mother, Jerusalem saw her children being driven away in chains by cruel soldiers. She was convinced that she would never see them again. Many years went by—perhaps fifty—and one day God raised up a prophet from among the exiles to bring a message of joy to her who was once "the great among the nations, the lady among the provinces" and who now "has become like a widow" (Lam 1:1).
He says to her: Jerusalem, your mourning is over! Lay down your tattered garments, wrap yourself in a shining mantle, the Lord is about to place a wreath of glory on your head. You have never seen a withered old woman rejuvenate and become a gorgeous, enchanting girl again. Yet with Jerusalem, this will happen—says the prophet—on it will shine the glory that comes from God (v. 1).
Mind you: not the glory we think we can give God (as if he needs our applause), but the glory that comes from him. It is the manifestation of his love through his intervention on our behalf. This is his glory: that people may live.
“The transformation of mourning into joy," says Baruch, "will be before the eyes of all. God will manifest the splendor of the renewed Jerusalem to every creature under heaven," and this will be the sign that nothing is impossible because of his love.
Hosea—the prophet who first employed the image of Israel as the Lord's bride—alluded to another prodigy. God, he said, “will betroth Israel again, the adulteress, he will completely abolish her past, with his love he will even restore her virginity” (Hos 2:21-22).
As a sign of the transformation that has taken place, Jerusalem receives new names: it is called Peace of Justice and Glory of Piety (v. 4). For a Semite, the name is not a simple conventional designation; it is always intimately linked to the person; it even identifies with the person who bears it. Taking a census means enslaving the one who is registered (2 Sam 24), to change the name indicates the attribution of a new personality (Gen 17:5).
Jerusalem receives new names that indicate its destiny: it will become the place where true peace will reign, not the apparent peace that is only legalized oppression, but the peace that is the fruit of justice, that is, the realization of God's plan. It will be the "glory of piety" because its fame will not come from political prestige or military success, but from its piety, that is, from fidelity to its God.
Baruch continues: “Jerusalem, rise up, stand on the heights. Look towards the east and see your children gathered together from the setting of the sun to its rising .... They left you on foot humiliated and taken away by the enemy, now returning in triumph; God will lead them back, carried gloriously like royal princes” (vv. 5-6).
This is the miracle worked by the Lord. God has decided to make every mountain flat and to fill every valley so that the Israelites can return to their mother without fatigue. Even the trees that produce fragrant resins bend their branches to make shade and protect the group of returning deportees from the sun's rays. God himself guides them as he accompanied their fathers when they came out of Egypt.
The reading is an invitation to joy and hope because the Lord "has determined to level every high mountain and age-old cliff, to fill in the valleys and level the land" (v. 7). He has determined, he has made an irrevocable decision. He will not rest until he has moved all the mountains, crumbled all the cliffs, visited all the abysses.
Second Reading: Philippians 1:4-6,8-11
Brothers and sisters: I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. —The Word of the Lord.
When we find ourselves in some difficulty, we turn to God and beg him to grant us what we need. The Israelites do not pray in this way; they always begin their invocations with a ‘blessing’ in which they list the reasons why they should give praise and thanks to the Lord; only afterward do they also present their requests to him. For example, they say, ‘Blessed are you, Lord, who takes pity on the pain of man.... Now I am suffering....’
The passage from the letter to the Philippians given in our reading is an example of one of these Jewish prayers composed of two parts. In the first (vv. 4-6), Paul gives thanks to God. He ‘blesses’ him for what he has accomplished in the community of Philippi, the first Christian community in Europe. He says that the community is very generous. It has even helped the proclaimers of the Gospel financially, that it leads a life of integrity, and that it fills his apostolic heart with satisfaction and joy. Before addressing his petition to God, he cannot help but express his inner emotion before such an abundant bestowal of grace. He declares his affection for those so dear to him "for the love of Christ Jesus" (v.8).
In the second part (vv.9-11), he asks God to make understanding and love of what is truly good and in conformity with the Gospel grow more and more among the Philippians. Perhaps our community feels that it does not deserve Paul's praise of the Philippians, yet we must cultivate confidence and optimism. "He who began this good work in us will certainly bring it to completion" (v. 5), as he did in Philippi. It is his work, not ours. He only asks us to let him act, to let ourselves be led by his Word.
Gospel: Luke 3:1-6
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. 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.” —The Gospel of the Lord.
The chronological reference with which Luke begins his account (vv. 1-2) is precise and important because it allows us to date the beginning of Jesus' public life. In Palestine, the year begins on October 1, and then the tenth-fifth year of Tiberius' empire is between the 27 and 30 of September 28 A.D., a date that fits perfectly with John 2:20.
Luke wants it to be clear to everyone that he is not beginning to tell a fable, an esoteric myth born of a dreamer's fantasy and extravagant imagination. He intends to refer to concrete facts. God's intervention in the history of humankind took place at a well-defined time and place. However, if the evangelist's objective were only to indicate the date of the beginning of Jesus' public life, he could stop after this first indication. Instead, he goes on and adds others: he indicates the names of the governors of Palestine and the nearby territories and those of the high priests Annas and Caiaphas. In all, seven people and to arrive at this figure, he must also include Annas, who is no longer high priest, for thirteen years, although he continues to play an important role.
The number 7 has a symbolic meaning: that of totality. The names and functions of the people mentioned indicate that all history—sacred and profane, Jewish and pagan—is involved if it is about to be told. It is a beginning that affects all people and all civil and religious institutions.
After the historical introduction, the first character, the Baptist, solemnly enters the scene: "The word of God came down to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness" (v. 2). These are the words used in the Old Testament to present the vocation of the great prophets (Jer 1:1,4).
Everything begins in the desert (v. 2), a place full of memories and deep emotional resonance for the Israelites. In the desert, they learned many lessons: they learned to detach themselves from all that is superfluous because it constitutes a useless burden to be carried along the way, they learned to be in solidarity and to share their goods with their brothers and sisters, they learned, above all, to trust God.
At the time of Jesus, it was in the desert that those who wanted to repeat the spiritual experience of their fathers, those who wanted to escape the hypocrisy of a religion made up of formalisms and purely external practices, withdrew. It is in the desert that those who reject the corrupt, unjust, and oppressive society that has settled in their land go to live. Among these ‘protesting’ people is John, son of Zechariah (Lk 1:80).
Luke says nothing about his manner of dress; he does not speak of his food, but, from what Matthew tells us (3:4), we know that the Baptist did not use the long white robe of the priests of the temple; he wore a rough garment, as did the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 2:13-14); he did not eat the products of the city, he fed on what the desert spontaneously offered. The Baptist wanted to be and appear a stranger in his own land; he was an Israelite, but his behavior distinguished him clearly from the people of his people.
Like John, Christians, while being in the world, live the spirituality of the desert. In a world where recourse to violence, retaliation, and even war is considered normal, they pronounce only words of peace and forgiveness; in a world where those who accumulate goods are proclaimed blessed, even by exploiting the weakest, they claim free service to the poor and sharing; in a world where pleasure is sought at all costs, they preach renunciation and the gift of self.
From the desert, the place of his vocation, John moves towards the region of the Jordan; he travels far and wide announcing a baptism of conversion for the forgiveness of sins. His preaching—it is well to anticipate this immediately so as not to misunderstand certain expressions –was a message of joy and consolation for all, as Luke will emphasize a few verses later (Lk 3:18).
In ancient times, the Jordan River—which flows through a desolate region—was never important either as a communication route (it is not navigable) or for irrigation. No great city ever rose along its banks. Its importance has always been that of constituting a border between different peoples. To take possession of the promised land, Israel, who came from Egypt, had to cross it (Jos 3).
It is this border territory that the Baptist chooses for his mission. In the rite of baptism that he administers, he wants everyone to repeat the gesture of entering, by crossing the Jordan, into the land of freedom. He wants to prepare a people ready to welcome God's salvation, ready to enter the true Promised Land. That is why he asks everyone to make the resolute decision to change their way of thinking and live radically.
To better clarify the task that John is called to perform, Luke quotes a phrase from the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight" (v. 4).
One cannot fail to notice a contradiction with what we heard in the first reading. There Baruch stated, "God has decided to level every high mountain, to fill in the valleys and to level the land, so that Israel may proceed safely" (Bar 5:7). His was a confident song to the salvation that God would undoubtedly bring to fruition.
In the book of oracles of the prophet Isaiah, on the other hand, the Israelites are asked to prepare the way of the Lord themselves. The prophet invites them to commit themselves to lower every hill and flattening the inaccessible places. Salvation comes from God and is his work alone, but it can only be obtained by those who remove the obstacles that stand in the way of his coming.
The two prophets do not contradict each other but complement each other. The first emphasizes the irresistible work of God's love. God—he says—will succeed, however, with his faithful love, to bring his people out of the land of slavery to freedom (Bar 5:7-9). He is like a man madly in love: no obstacle is insurmountable for him along the path that leads him to encounter the beloved woman. There is no high mountain, no deep, dark valley preventing him from realizing his dream of love.
The second prophet emphasizes the work of man instead. The success of God's love is indeed assured, but man can lose many moments, many days, many years of happiness and joy far from his Lord. For this reason, he must open his heart and quickly remove all obstacles that stand in the way of meeting him.
Unlike the other evangelists who merely quote a verse from Isaiah, Luke continues the quotation: “The valleys will be filled and the mountains and hills made low ... Every human being will see the salvation of God”(vv.5-6). If he also adds these verses, it means that they are particularly close to his heart. Let's try to understand the reason. The ravines to be filled, the mountains to be flattened, the hills to be lowered, the winding passes to be made straight, and the inaccessible places to be leveled are undoubtedly understood not in a material sense but as symbols of another reality.
In biblical language, the mountains and hills represent the pride, haughtiness, and arrogance of those who wish to impose themselves and dominate over others (cf. Is 2:11-17). The kingdom of God is incompatible with these haughty and arrogant attitudes; it cannot come there where the competitive spirit reigns, where people try in every way to overpower others, where castes are accepted, where bowing, prostrations, obeisance, and reverences are demanded. Only those who take the opposite logic enter the new world: the gift of self, humble mutual service, the search for the last place. "He who is greatest must become like the least, and he who rules like the one who serves" (Lk 22:26).
Then there are the chasms to be filled. They are the scandalous economic inequalities denounced by the prophets. Finally, the tortuous passages are the wiles, the senseless choices, the unjust situations that must be revised and brought into conformity with God's ways. “Is my position wrong? Is it not rather that yours is wrong?” (Ezk 18:25).
The conversion that the Baptist demands is radical. How can we hope that man can carry it out? If we understand the meaning of the prophet’s words, as imperatives (“be filled,” “be lowered down,” “be straight”), as if they were commanding that man through his efforts and commitment can realize, then we are mistaken. In fact, in the original Greek text, the verbs are in future passive: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked paths will be straight ....” So, it is about the joy that awaits! It is not about orders given by God but about his promise: a new world based on the kingdom's values will rise. Although it may seem like a mirage to people, it will be God’s work.
The last part of the quote is crucial: “All flesh shall see the salvation of God!” (v. 6). Not ‘every man,’ but ‘all flesh, says the original text. In the biblical sense, ‘flesh’ is not the muscles, but the whole person considered in his aspect of being weak, fragile, exposed to many failures. Man is flesh because he falls ill, makes mistakes, suffers loneliness and abandonment, grows old and dies. Here, then, is the promise: in every weakness of man, God's salvation will be manifested; there will be no abyss of guilt so dark and deep that it will not be visited and illuminated by his love.
Luke places this statement at the beginning of his Gospel; he chooses it almost as the title of his work because it contains a solemn declaration: God does not reserve his salvation for a few privileged people but wants it to be offered to all. No one will be excluded. It is an echo of Simeon's prophecy: "My eyes have seen your salvation, prepared by you before all peoples, a light to enlighten the nations" (Lk 2:30-32).