One of the prayers we have in the Catholic Church to Mary, the mother of Jesus, is known as the Salve Regina or Hail, Holy Queen. In part of the prayer we say to her:
‘Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy towards us
and after this, our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.’
The reference to exile draws on the image of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis being banished, exiled, from God’s presence in the Garden of Eden. It sees our human life here on earth as one of exile from our true home in heaven. In the prayer we ask Mary to intervene with Jesus – the ‘fruit of thy womb’ – so that when we die our exile here on earth will be ended and we will be welcomed into the presence of her son in heaven.
(The phrase ‘fruit of thy worm’ is used by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation and Elizabeth at the Visitation to refer to Jesus.)
In the Church we understand that Jesus, the son of Mary, came amongst us to bring an end to this exile and alienation from God, and to restore us to a full relationship – through him – with God.
The theme of exile is to be found in the First Reading (Baruch 5:1-9 and in the Psalm (Psalm 125).
The Prophet Baruch was addressing the Israelite refugees who had been forced into exile from 586-538 B.C. He predicted, rightly, that their exile would be ended and they’d be allowed to return to their homeland. And in the latter part of today’s Reading he celebrated their expected return by using the familiar imagery of a king moving in triumphant procession with his army, his passage carefully prepared with the filling in of ditches, gorges and valleys as well as the widening and smoothing of once rough roads.
This text was chosen for today’s Mass because it matches the similar prediction of the Prophet Isaiah that is featured in today’s Gospel (Luke 3:1-6). But here the ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ is applied to the role of John the Baptist.
John, the cousin of Jesus, was an itinerant preacher who in first century Palestine emerged from an area north of the Dead Sea, in the neighbourhood of Jericho. St Luke gives us the exact date of John’s emergence by setting it in the political situation of that time in Palestine, then part of the Roman Empire. The fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberias’ reign was probably 27/28 AD and the dates of the other figures he mentions coincide with this date.
John was a challenging figure. In an atmosphere of heightened expectancy of the coming of the Messiah, he called people to repentance, i.e. to turn away from anything in their lives impeding them from being ready to receive the Messiah. Some listened to his uncompromising message and changed the direction of their lives; but others resisted.
By the time St Luke wrote his Gospel some 50 years or so later, Christians had come to understand the Baruch and Isaiah prophecies in a new way. For them, John was the voice crying in the wilderness, calling on people to Prepare a way for the Lord, Make his paths straight … to be ready to receive the Messiah.
Does John’s message have any practical relevance to us today? How can we respond to his challenging message of repentance in a way that will make for more fulfilled lives?
If we are to respond to what God is saying to us through John, then we have to review the direction in which our lives are heading. We have to ask if there are things in my life that may be alienating me from God, preventing Christ from offering me a better and happier way of life. We must ask: what do I need to turn away from – or give up – to be the person Christ is calling me to be, or, even, the person I want to be? What’s getting in the way? Is there something holding me captive from which I need – with God’s grace – to break free?
To turn away from something is one thing. But what or whom to turn TO?
Deliver us, O Lord, from our bondage as streams in dry land (Psalm 125)
Holy Name, Jesmond
9 December 2018