He wanted to Rise with Us from the Abyss
The biblical sites are often tied to a theological significance. The sea, the mountain, the desert, the Galilee of the Gentiles, Samaria, the Jordan River, the land beyond the lake of Genezareth are much more than simple geographical indications (often not entirely accurate).
Luke does not specify the place where the baptism of Jesus took place, but John alludes to it: “It happened in Bethany beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing” (Jn 1:28). The tradition has correctly located the episode in Bethabara, the ford where even the people of Israel, guided by Joshua, crossed the river and entered the Promised Land.
The gestures of Jesus present explicit references to the passage from slavery to freedom and to the beginning of a new exodus to the true Promised Land. Bethabara has also another recall, less obvious, but equally significant: the geologists ensure that this is the lowest point on earth (400m below sea level).
The decision to start from there the public life cannot be random. Jesus came from the heights of heaven to free people. He went down into a deeper abyss to show that he desires the salvation of every person. He wants to save even the most derelict, the one dragged by guilt and sin in an abyss no one imagines the possibility of getting out. God does not forget and does not abandon any of his children.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
And the grace of God appears, bringing salvation to all people.”
First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11
The first years of exile in Babylon were difficult, but, as a result, the Israelites adapted to their new condition and many were able to reach even prestigious social positions.
After forty years, a prophet arose. He was an enlightened man, a sensitive poet, a brilliant theologian. He attentively followed the political events of his time and realized that the kingdom of Babylon was crumbling, while the power of Cyrus, king of Persia, was dramatically growing. It was time to awaken in the exiles the hope of slavery’s end and the imminent return to the fatherland. He began to circulate among the captives his insights, his predictions, and hopes. So as not to arouse suspicions of the Babylonians authorities, who could accuse him of being a subversive, he made use of an encrypted language. He used images that only the children, his people, were able to understand. He announced the upcoming release from the Babylonian slavery referring to the miracles that occurred during the exodus from Egypt and promising even greater prodigies.
Few of the deportees cultivated his spiritual sensitivity. The majority, seduced by the lure of pagan life, was now part of the new social and religious reality. It had forgotten the glorious past and saw the references to the promises made to Abraham as fairy tales devoid of any value. These exiles, weakened in faith, were unable to grasp the calls of God. They had neither the courage nor the strength to start a new life and were dispersed among the Gentiles. The history of salvation went on without them. The exiles’ greater danger was not its toughness but its seductions and its attractions.
The experience of these prisoners is a warning to one who, like them, adapts himself to a banal and no prospects life, although convenient, and rejects the persuasions of the Lord to let himself be freed, to look to the future with the eyes of God.
The message of this prophet is therefore addressed to us.
It starts with a pressing invitation: “Be comforted my people … . Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, proclaim to her that her time of bondage is at an end, that her guilt has been paid for … . She has received double punishment for all her iniquity” (vv. 1-2). As the thieves who had to pay twice what they had stolen (Ex 22:3), Israel had served her mistakes, she had paid hard, beyond measure, just as it always happens to those who deviate from God’s ways.
In common parlance, to console is equivalent, in most cases, to speaking words of comfort, to communicate a bit of serenity to one in distressed, but does not change the painful situation that causes pain. The consolation of God cannot be reduced to a tender caress that heartens. God consoles assisting one who is in desperate straits, consoles the miserable by lifting him from the dust (Is 2:8), changing his mourning into dancing and his cry into a song of joy (Ps 30:12).
Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the Consoler (Jn 14:15) because, with his coming, he renews the face of the earth (Ps 104:30).
God consoles, that is, he sets people free from all bondage, through his Word, which is not as fragile as the grass that dries up or withers like the flower that fades, but is alive and eternal (Is 40:6-8) and never returns to God without having done what it wants or accomplish that for which it was sent (Is 55:10-11).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 3-5), an anonymous voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord … every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low.”
The construction of a road is the condition for God to come to comfort his people. A vast desert separates Palestine from Mesopotamia. The road that, in ancient times, connected Babylon to the cities of the Mediterranean coast did not cross it. It goes up north, skirting it for almost a thousand kilometers. The mysterious voice calls on the exiles to chart a new, spacious and straight road, which allows to easily and quickly reach the destination where the Lord wants to lead them.
The Prophet accumulates a series of images to highlight the commitments one must assume to make room for God in his own life. He asks to prepare the way for the Lord, not a path that leads a person to God, but one that allows God to reach a person.
The opening of this new road indicates the inner disposition to abandon the old ways, those that God has always refused: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways” (Is 55:8). The mountains to level and the valleys to be filled are the impediments to the encounter, communication, mutual respect between peoples of different culture, race, and religion. Only by removing these barriers it is possible to prepare the way for the Lord, the way of acceptance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
In a grand vision, in the third part of the reading (vv. 9-11), the prophet describes the return of the exiles in the holy city. Their guide is not a man as it happened during the exodus from Egypt. It is the Lord who preceded them and, as a shepherd leads his sheep “gathers the lambs in his arm … and gently leading those that are with young” (v. 11).
The image is moving. It shows God’s tenderness towards the weak. Tender, sweet, patient, he respects the time and spiritual rhythm of each one. He values who walks quickly but direct his attentions and concerns to one who advances with difficulty, one who lingers along the way.
When the group of exiles is almost close to the city, there are some who break away from the group and run ahead to announce the “good news” of liberation. Zion is invited by the Prophet to become the harbinger of “good news.” Her message of joy, the “gospel” proclaimed by her is: God will never abandon man, he will always look for him in all the land of bondage, and he’ll take him in his arms and will accompany him on the path that leads to freedom.