The first reading is from the book of Baruch which is not part of the Jewish Hebrew Bible but is included in the Greek Bible originally used by Greek speaking Jews in the Diaspora; Catholics have books from this source in their Bibles under the heading Deuterocanonical books, but many other Christians have bibles without these extra books. The Greek version of the Bible was made about 200 BC in Alexandria in Egypt which had a large Jewish population and was a great centre of learning at that time. The first reading appears to be about the city of Jerusalem, but it is the idea of ‘Jerusalem’ as the mother of the Jewish people. So the reading sounds, at one level, as though it is from a time when the Jews had been in captivity in Babylon for about a generation, and obviously were feeling downcast – you may remember the song by Boney M, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon’ based on psalm 137 in which the people bemoan their lot; the expectation is announced that God will bring them back in triumph. And yet this passage could equally well have meaning for a later date when the city or the people were further distressed due to domination by the Greek empire, then it would have a similar meaning, or perhaps in Roman times under the oppression of those claiming the one and only god – and later especially Christianity; the upbeat theme is similar to the well-know passage from Isaiah (Chapter 40:1-5) and the classical presentation of it in Handel’s Messiah, a passage also quoted in the gospel; readers today will be able to put their own interpretation on the passage to match their present circumstances, taking it as a sign of hope in whatever difficult times.
Paul’s letter to the Philippians actually looks like a combination of extracts from three separate letters to them. In the passage we read today (Philippians 1:4-11 passim), Paul is writing from prison in Ephesus, where he was being held quite restrictedly. And yet he would have needed access to someone who could write for him since his Greek and Jewish education would not have taught him to write very well and we know he used secretaries for others of his letters. Also it seems that Epaphroditus had visited him and brought gifts from Philippi. There was a very active house Church in Philippi that was hosted by Lydia who had been among the small Jewish group that Paul preached to at their meeting place on the fringe of the town. At this early stage of his ministry, Paul and all the Christians felt that the end was near and Christ would shortly come again. This is an upbeat tone applauding their faithfulness and encouraging their continuance and preparation till the End should come.
By the time of the writing of the gospel of Luke, the delay of the ‘Second Coming’ was accepted and hence the view that Christians just have to work on following the way of Christ to the best of their ability. So the passage we have today makes three points. Firstly, it sets the coming of Christ on the stage of history, by following the way history was written in those days – dating according to the year of the Emperor’s rule; some of Luke’s information in this section doesn’t quite square with what we know of the history of the time from other sources, but the point he tries to make is clear: Christ came at a particular time into our world and this was significant for the great Roman empire as well of for the local Jewish people. Secondly, the message of John the Baptist prepared for the coming, but is basically relevant also to all who want to be good Christians: it is a message of conversion, of starting to leave old ways behind and to change one’s attitude to life; this is the meaning of the word translated as ‘repent.’ Thirdly, in the words of Isaiah, there is the message to prepare, in quite a radical way, for the coming of Christ.