There seems this week to be a huge dialectic between readings, particularly between the first reading and the Gospel: the prophet Isaiah in the famous “Root of Jesse” passage aligns usual enemies as peaceful friends; the wolf and the lamb, the panther and the kid, the calf and the lion. This notion is picked up again in the second reading; “be tolerant with each other…treat each other in the same friendly way as Christ treated you….” It seems hard then to adjoin the Gospel where John the Baptist, in a cameo, calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers.” But fundamentally there is nothing inconsistent with these.
In preparing the way of the Lord, the Baptizer calls all to repentance; which is also the first call of Jesus in the same Gospel (4:17). Repentance is a result of a changing of heart but it does not start from there nor finish there yet is the key for preparation (the heart of the matter) and continuing acceptance of the Kingdom of God which is near at hand.
The process might go something like this: God’s love comes near in the form of his presence; by recognizing his presence we become humbled; in this humility we recognize our failings and repent of our sins (the necessary change); we begin to accept the love of God, as unworthy as we are; this love of God is then shown on our love for others (commonly recognized as good fruits or works); which finally prepare us for a further deepening encounter with God.
This process (as incomplete as it may be) is what John the Baptist is calling the Brood of Vipers to enter. Baptism is the sign of the repentance of sins and a visible sign of our acceptance of God’s love and mercy. However the water baptism of John is only a preparation of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire that will be offered later by Jesus. The paths we are meat to straighten are not literal paths (like clearing the way in a crowd for a king) but rather the internal paths in accepting the love of God and continuing to do his will.
The Pharisees and Sadducees conversely are stuck in their pride. Claiming direct descendancy from Abraham, the father of the faith, they consider themselves above those who otherwise cannot make such a claim. Yet this is a false presumption because they are not producing good fruits. Their pride becomes a stumbling block in receiving what God has to offer, namely himself: they are not making straight the paths. But a faithful God sent his Son regardless to bring hope to those who are willing to accept him.
The wolf and the lamb, the panther and the kid, the calf and lion can only lay in peace because of what God can offer. And what God offers comes from the Root of Jesse. They become symbols (especially the Lion and the Calf which represent Judea and the gentiles) of where accepting God’s love can lead, the breaking down of barriers through which God’s glory is shown. The Pharisees and Sadducees are at one end: the lion and the calf are at the other.
Are you making straight your path to receive God into your heart? Is it any wonder the Advent season is coloured purple. The call of repentance still echoes today. Are you ready?