One of the two most common prayers we have in the Church to Mary, Our Lady, the Mother of Jesus, is known as the ‘Salve Regina’ in Latin or ‘Hail, Holy Queen’ in English. In the prayer we call ourselves the ‘poor banished children of Eve’ and ask 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 prayer draws on the image of Adam and Eve in the Book of Genesis being banished, exiled, from the Garden of Eden. As descendants of Adam and Eve, we on earth are sharing in that alienation, separation or exile from our true home with God in heaven. So in the prayer we ask Our Lady 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 by Elizabeth at the Visitation to refer to Jesus.)
In these terms, we understand that the purpose of Jesus, the son of Mary, was to heal that rift with God, bring an end to our exile and to restore us to a full relationship with a loving God in eternity.
This theme of exile features in our First Reading (Baruch 5:1-9) and Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 125). The Prophet Baruch was addressing the citizens of Jerusalem who had been in forced exile in Babylon (586-538 B.C.) He comforts them with the assurance that they will return to their homeland by using the familiar imagery of a king moving in triumphant procession with his army to Jerusalem, 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 First Reading has been chosen because it matches the similar prediction of the Prophet Isaiah that features in today’s Gospel (Luke 3:1-6). But in the Gospel the ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ is now directly applied to the role of John the Baptist, the one see to prepare the way for Jesus.
John, a cousin of Jesus, was an itinerant preacher who emerged in the first century from Jericho, part of what we know today as the West Bank in Palestine. (Jericho remains the oldest and lowest city on earth, some 864 feet below sea level, and was the first place to be attacked by the Israelites after they crossed the Red Sea in ancient times.) 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 at that time of heightened expectancy of the coming of the Messiah, he called people to repentance, i.e. to change direction from the way they were living in order to be ready for the arrival of the Messiah. He commanded a huge following, his followers believing he could be the Messiah. His followers, known as the Mandeans, continue to exist today. Jesus had been a disciple of John, accepted his baptism in the River Jordan and only began his own ministry when John, his mentor, was arrested and beheaded in prison.
By the time St Luke wrote his Gospel some 50 years after John’s death, Christians had come to interpret the Baruch and Isaiah prophecies in a new way. John was not the Messiah but the very voice crying in the wilderness, calling on people to Prepare a way for the Lord, Make his paths straight so to be ready to receive the Messiah.
In the run up to Christmas John challenges us also to ‘prepare a way for the Lord’, to welcome him anew into our lives. So we might ask what in me impedes his way, that blocks his arrival? Is there something that alienates or separates me from the love of God, something that has a grip on me and holds me captive? And what do I need to do to avoid having a hollow Christmas? From whatever it is that is holding us back or separating from the love of Christ, we pray with today’s Psalm:
Deliver us, O Lord, from our bondage as streams in dry land (Psalm 125)
Holy Name, Jesmond
9 December 2021