Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths

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2nd Sunday of Advent, Year C: Dec. 9, 2012
Bar 5:1-9; Ps 126; Phil 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

“All flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Our readings today paint us a glorious picture of what the Lord will accomplish when he comes: the wrongs he will set right, the blessings he will bestow. The prophets Isaiah and Baruch were speaking to the People of Israel in a difficult time of suffering and exile, with their cities destroyed, their people separated from each other, and everything looking quite hopeless. And they promise: mourning and misery will change into splendor and glory; joy and peace, mercy and justice will be restored; when the Lord lays out the way back home.

And this matches the vision of St. John, spoken to the suffering Church (Rev 21:1-4, 11-15): that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, with a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven, beautiful like a bride adorned for her husband. It is described in terms of radiance, using imagery of gold and precious stones. And God himself will always be with them: he will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order will have passed away.

Isn’t that a beautiful prospect? It is just right for touching our hearts, to awaken hope and longing, and a sort of joy. And we encounter in the Gospel reading St. John the Baptist, our first great guide of Advent, who is all about the coming of the Lord. He is the voice crying out in the desert. And what does he cry out about this joyful prospect? “Celebrate good times, come on”? No?

No! Of course he was looking forward to the Lord’s coming; but the people were not prepared! His job was to prepare the way of the Lord, and so he preached repentance, a true change of mind and of action; and he carried out a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

A few weeks ago, one of those in RCIA asked me, why was John the Baptist baptizing? After all, baptism seems so identifiably Christian; and clearly there was no Christian Church yet, when John was baptizing. It is a good question. But within Judaism there were practices of washing and even full immersion of the body, for purposes of purification. And, even more to the point, by the 1st century AD, when someone from a Gentile or non-Jewish background wanted to become Jewish, not only was he circumcised but he was also baptized, immersed, as a sign of turning away from past sin and error in embracing Judaism.

But John wasn’t baptizing converts; he was baptizing lifelong Jews: lifelong Jews who recognized that they needed to make the same radical changes, the same radical reorientation of their life and identity, as a convert.

Think about our equivalent to that. Last week we saw the three people in this year’s RCIA group taking the first ritual step in becoming Catholic or completing their Christian initiation. For those three, and for the seven last year, it is a process that is life-changing. While it may vary from person to person, they may discover that some of their past beliefs were false, or falling short of the truth, and need to be changed; that some of their past actions were wrong, or falling short of goodness, and need to be changed. They will be learning new spiritual practices and changing their habits, every day, every week, and season by season. They will be associating with a whole new community, and may face strains in their relationships with family and friends. This is what it takes to be a convert, then and now. And this same depth of self-examination and change is what John the Baptist called the lifelong Jews of his time to embrace; and what he calls the lifelong Catholics right now to embrace during this holy season of Advent.

Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!

When my family moved to Spain when I was 15, there were just two ways to get from our town to another town further down the coast: by road or by train. The road was narrow and wound tightly around the coastal hills: it took a long time and, at least with six of us crammed into our car, it was really awful. After riding there once, I never wanted to do it again. The train was much better. But better still was once they built the freeway! It was amazing how fast and smooth and easy it then became to drive from one town to another.

And this is just what the Scriptures are talking about. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth. For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.

How are the roads that connect the Lord to you; and you to the Lord? How are the paths that connect you to others in self-giving, generous love? Are they smooth and wide and straight and fast like a freeway? Or are they choked, and winding, and blocked by obstacles, and broken up by potholes and ravines? What will it take to prepare the way of the Lord in your own life? What needs to be cleared out of the way? What new practices need to be cut through and constructed to make this relationship open and flowing?

This is the call of John the Baptist to us this Advent season. This change, this conversion, of mind and heart and life is not easy; but it is worth it! So many saints have trod this road before us. Consider the joy that lies ahead; and consider the encouraging words that we heard from St. Paul:

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus… that your love may increase ever more and more… to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness… for the glory and praise of God.

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