Luke’s elaborate attempt to locate the arrival of John the Baptist in the context of secular history seems to be the answer to every historian’s prayer. In fact, however, these references are very imprecise, and none more so than the apparently decisive “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” The problem is that the Roman emperor Tiberius shared power with Augustus for two years and we do not know when Luke is beginning his count of the years of Tiberius’ reign. One must wonder whether Luke is not perhaps smiling to himself as he teases historians in this way.
Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Luke is very much interested in history. But it is a history that includes God’s intervention to bring final salvation from the human scourge of sin and death. This divine “taking charge” of history will be announced by John the Baptist and brought into being by Jesus. However, only those who are ready to embrace God’s gracious purposes will participate in the final victory.
John’s “baptism of repentance” is a ritual that signifies one’s readiness to remove all obstacles to the coming of the Lord. Such obstacles would be, first and foremost, a prideful self-will that wishes to dictate where and how and when the Lord should come. Making straight the way of Lord is, therefore, a metaphor for personal conversion from prideful controlling tendencies to humble and grateful acceptance of God’s sovereign rights in human life.
The most certain way to miss the promised “salvation of God” is to be too busy, too engrossed in one’s work and too distracted to think about God or to prepare for his coming. It is true, of course, that Christ came some 2000 years ago. But that is no guarantee that we have welcomed him. For Christ continues to come to each generation of us humans and to challenge us to let his ideals govern our lives. In that sense, God is always coming and we are constantly being asked to welcome him.
This does not mean that we need to devote large amounts of time to welcoming Christ into our lives. It is more a matter of quality than of quantity. The ideal is set forth in the famous “Hear, O Israel,” of Deuteronomy 6:4. We are told there that we should never be totally unmindful of the reality and the presence of God in our lives. In time of explicit prayer, God is at center stage, as it were, while at other times he moves into the wings but never far from full consciousness on our part.
I like to think of this consciousness of God’s presence as a “benign distraction” which, far from interfering with our work, actually helps us to focus more clearly on what we are doing. Moreover, it should not be surprising, when we think of God’s love for us, that a smile should play occasionally across our faces, as is customary with those who are in love. Such a benign distraction not only makes us more productive but it also gives us a deep sense of peace and security.
It is our recognition of the presence of God in our world, whether in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, or in this year, that constitutes the true meaning of history for us.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.