“PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE STRAIGHT HIS PATHS.”
- Once, when a conference of ministers was held in a certain town, a certain old preacher had sat quietly through it for a number of days until, toward the end of the conference, he was suddenly and unexpectedly called upon to speak. He arose thoughtfully and almost stumblingly fumbled for his words. Finally, his thoughts took form, his words fell in the rhythm of a marching column, and his impassioned oratory beat down upon the upturned faces of his audience until, as he arose to his peroration and reached his climax, the whole sedate conference broke into a spontaneous applause that shook the room, according to an item in Printer’s Ink.
He had delivered the master oration of the conference. When finally the applause subsided, a cocky young Doctor of Divinity strolled up to him. “That was a masterly address you delivered extemporaneously. Yet you must have had some preparation to have done it so well. How long did it take you to prepare it?”
The older man looked gently for some time at the younger one before he answered. And then he said: “Sixty years, young man, sixty years!”
We are in the Holy Season of Advent and it is actually a time of hope and also a time for spiritual preparation for the coming of Our Lord not only at Christmas, which we celebrate every year, but also for His Second & Final Coming at the end of times. Let us then be always prepared to receive the Lord during this Christmas, or indeed whenever he comes.
Today, on the Second Sunday of Advent, the emphasis begins to shift from the Lord’s final coming in glory to his coming in human flesh. Every year, on this day, as preparation for Christmas, the Church leads us on pilgrimage to the Jordan River, so that we might enroll in the school of John the Baptist, hear his message, and put it into action in our lives. At first glance, it seems like a strange choice to meet him at the Jordan, 30 years after Christ’s birth, millennia before his Second Coming. But the reason why the Church always visits John at the Jordan is because he was the one chosen by God the Father from all eternity to get His people ready to receive His Son, who was already walking toward the Jordan River to inaugurate his public ministry. The Gospel Reading of today from St. Mark presents John the Baptist as our model for Advent preparation; he is the precursor who announced the Lord’s coming and who prepared the people by preaching them “the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
The Scripture Readings of today tell us about the concern God has for His people and at the same time admonishes the people to prepare the way spiritually for the coming of the Lord. In the First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, the Prophet consoles the people of Israel in exile and and assures them of the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah. In this passage normally known as ‘the poem of consolation’, God shows how he cares for each person individually. In the Second Reading from his 2nd Letter, St. Peter speaks strongly against those who denied the Second Coming of Christ and says that ‘the Day of the Lord’ will come like a thief and the Lord will establish his Kingdom of truth, justice and peace in a new heaven and new earth. The Gospel Reading of today from St. Mark presents John the Baptist as the precursor of the birth of the Messiah. John the Baptist called all to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths”. He proclaimed the Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and announced the coming of Jesus who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. The preparatory work announced by John is the way we’re called to get ourselves ready to receive the Lord who is coming.
THE POEM OF CONSOLATION:
In the First Reading of today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which is normally known as ‘The Poem of Consolation’, the Prophet brings comforting words to the suffering Israelite people in exile, whose whole world was in disarray and hopelessness; people who had no comfort and security. In the midst of their mourning, he is able to say to the grieving city of God that God has not abandoned her or her children. Jerusalem is not to be cast down in mourning but to witness to the power and radiance of God. She is to clothe herself in the glory of God and proclaim that God is with her for ever. In a way, the passage summarizes the theology of exile. It gives reasons why there was exile at all. Of course it was not because of God’s lack of power, love and protection. Rather it was in response to people’s negligence of their faith in God, their sin. With Israel’s endurance and atonement, the Lord uses the mouth of the Prophet to bring them comfort and hope, which they needed so badly and assures them of the fulfillment of the promise of the Messiah. But in spite of the fact that their sin is atoned for, the coming of the Messiah can only be meaningful if they made the conscious effort to welcome him namely putting away all evil or the works of darkness. So he says, “In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God. Every valley shall be filled in, …”
Again, not only is the Prophet consoling them, he assures the Israelite people that the coming of the Lord will be characterized by subduing of nations under him. All sovereignty including those oppressing the Israelite people will be subdued. The vulnerable will have a place in his network of salvation. This is because he is like a shepherd king feeding his flock, gathering them against his breast. The shepherd king attribute of Christ is made clear again in that he will bring hope to the vulnerable.
AWAITNG THE COMING OF THE LORD:
The 2nd Letter of St. Peter, from which our Second Reading comes – with its reference to the ‘Second Coming’ of the Lord – is one of the last texts of the New Testament to be written. It reflects the mood of the early Church, as it comes to terms with the fact that they faced an indefinite wait before the Lord’s promised return. Just as the First Reading was a consolation to the Israelite people in exile, the Second Reading is a reminder that as we await the Lord, whether he comes early or not, we must not relapse into sin or take advantage of his delay to do evil. In this Reading, St. Peter shows us that, while we prepare the way of the Lord, three things are absolutely necessary to know and understand: First, the Lord is not slow about his promise of coming; He is patient with us, not wanting any to perish, but to come to repentance. Second, ‘the Day of the Lord’will come like a thief with the heavens set ablaze and dissolved, the elements melted with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it dissolved and new heavens a new earth will be created in which righteousness dwells. Third, leading lives of holiness as a way of hastening the coming of the Lord is an absolute necessity – since all things are going to be dissolved in this way. For this, you and I are expected to be found at peace with God, ourselves, and everyone. And God requires a response.
“PREPARE THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE STRAIGHT HIS PATHS.”:
The Gospel Reading of today is the beginning of the Good News according to St. Mark. The opening verse – “The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” sets the theme for his Gospel. This sets the stage for all that follows in the entire Gospel. St. Mark tells us that this is the beginning of the story of Jesus which commences with his life and his ministry but continues on to include our own times. That is the story he wants to tell, or rather, the good news he wants to proclaim, gradually unfolding identity of the man Jesus as ‘the Son of God’, which is ultimately pronounced by a pagan soldier at the foot of the cross saying, “He is truly the Son of God.”
The opening verse is also the profession of faith. These words throw us right into the middle of Jesus’ cause for coming into the world. In the Gospel, St. Mark tells us that the story of Jesus did not begin with his birth on earth but began in the mind of God from the beginning of times. Thus it shows us that the advent of Jesus must be understood as a part of God’s saving plan. God fulfilled the plan He had for us when creation began. He raised us to the dignity of divine son-ship by the incarnation and made us inherit the Kingdom of God.
Now, the First Reading provides the background for the Gospel Reading. John the Baptist emerges here as the immediate precursor of Jesus. “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you ….Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Mark attributes this prophecy to Isaiah but in fact it also combines phrases from the Exodus and the Prophet Malachi. By combining the Old Testament texts St. Mark shows that John the Baptist brings together the Old Testament tradition of promise for which Jesus is the fulfillment. As precursor, John prepares the people by calling them to reorient their lives and turn back to God. This is symbolized by the proclamation of l“a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John the Baptist’s preparation for the coming of Jesus was not aesthetic or physical beautification. He calls for a spiritual preparation. A spiritual preparation is crucial and important for the coming of the Messiah or Lord. The response of the people to this call of conversion is noteworthy. In Mark’s description of John’s ministry, he highlights the fact that the people confessed their sins in response to the Baptist’s call to repentance.
Again, St. Mark describes John the Baptist’s clothing and food in a way reminiscent of Elijah – “John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.” He also wants the reader to make the connection between John the Baptist and Elijah, another great Old Testament prophet who called Israel to repentance and whose return it was popularly thought would usher in the Messianic Era. John does what Elijah did and he looks as if he is presenting the ways of Elijah. Actually, John’s message was present not only in his words but also in his whole life. The man himself was the message. Through the simplicity of life and asceticism John gave his witness and as a result of his witness, people came to him, believed in him, and obeyed him.
Moreover, despite his seeming popularity, John the Baptist did not bank on it – he remained humble. He was so humble before the message of God that he became the message, the voice, of God the Father. He was aware of his role and the limits of his role. He knew who he was in relation to Jesus. He knew that his ministry was never about him, never about how good of a preacher he was to have been able to draw “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem” to him in the waters of the Jordan River. It was only all about Jesus, whom he describes as “One mightier than I,” and he in his great humility would not even dare “stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” Even Jesus’ mission is mightier, for his baptism “with water” merely symbolized repentance from sin, but Jesus’ Baptism “with the Holy Spirit” actually effects what it symbolizes. It really and truly washes sins from the soul.
Finally, when we look at John the Baptist’s noble vocation, let’s not think that he is merely an isolated figure stuck in history two thousand years ago. We too are John the Baptist of today.
Now, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths,” is a common usage during the Advent season. It is an invitation to get ready to welcome the Lord. Through the liturgy of the 2nd Sunday of Advent, we are invited to tread the path of repentance and conversion. So, during this period of Advent when we prepare ourselves for the coming of Our Lord, what should our response be? We have to fill in the valleys that come from a shallow prayer life and a minimalistic way of living our faith. We have to straighten out whatever crooked paths we’ve been walking: If we’ve been involved in some secret sins or in a sinful relationship, the Lord calls us through the challenging words of John the Baptist to end it; if we’ve been involved in some dishonest practices at work or at home, we’re called to straighten them out and do restitution; if we’ve been harboring grudges or hatred, or failing to reconcile with others, now’s the time to clear away all the debris; and if we’ve been pushing God off the side of the road, if we’ve been saying to Him that we don’t really have the time for Him, now’s the time to get our priorities straight. This Advent—which is a gift of the Lord to us, and who knows it may be our last—will succeed or fail on the basis of how well we convert and clear our lives of sin so that the Lord may come to us. And this is the Good News of today.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.