“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!” John the Baptist cries in the wilderness. The Baptist’s cry for preparation through repentance is renewed among us as we celebrate Advent. The preparation involves vigilance, repentance and rejoicing.
Vigilance is being in a state of readiness. Last Sunday Jesus used the example of a watchman guarding the household waiting for the Master’s return. The servant acting as a watchman has to stay awake during the long hours of the night so that he will be alert when he sees the Master of the house coming. Vigilance is needed because we do not know the day or the hour of the Lord’s return.
On the Atlantic City Expressway heading toward Philadelphia, shortly after one of the toll booths, is a series of three signs that read: “Stay Awake,” “Stay Alert” and “Stay Alive.” The first two call for vigilance, the third indicates the reward for such vigilance. The message is presented for people traveling home at night after a stay at the shore. Tired after all the activity and beach time, it is easy for a driver to get drowsy and thus distracted from their driving.
The celebration of Advent reminds us that as we go through life in this world it is a time of preparation for the Lord’s return. The daily routines of life can sometimes make us “drowsy.” The celebrations of this season call us to wake up from any sleepiness that we might experience so that we can be ready to greet the Lord on his return.
The Baptist urges us to be prepared through repentance from sin. Repentance is the act whereby we acknowledge our sins and commit ourselves to turn away from sinful behavior and attitudes. Turning away from sin is accompanied by a turning toward God and the love he offers us. This love is a transforming love that pulls us out of the snares of death and rewards us with life. Sin is something that robs us of life hence its consequences are moments of death.
Our sins require healing which only the Lord can provide. He wants us to be healed as he demonstrated time and again in his covenantal relationship with Israel. The ultimate witness to his desire to heal and restore us to life is through the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. The remedy to sin was his obedience to the Father in laying down his life for our salvation.
In this we find the meaning of life and the source of life. Yet the journey is long and we can get forgetful, sometimes we get worn-out or tired along the journey, sometimes we get tempted, and in our weakened state we sin. The call to repentance is a call to renewal. Acknowledgement of sin, the desire for mercy and the experience of forgiveness help us to be prepared for the Lord’s return and to experience the fullness of life that he desires for us.
Preparation also involves rejoicing in the Lord’s mercy that he has shown time and time again. The Lord speaks through Isaiah the prophet, “Comfort, give comfort to my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed, she has received from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.”
Isaiah is calling the people to prepare for the Lord’s coming, a preparation that reaches its fulfillment in the Advent of the Christ. The world is transformed with his arrival: “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country a broad valley.”
The images describe the impact of the Lord’s arrival. Everything is made anew. The desired coming of the Lord will usher in the “end times.” This is the time in which we live – Jesus has already conquered sin and death through his cross and resurrection. Through him we have seen the “glory of the Lord revealed.” At the same time we wait in hope for his return when the mission will reach its end. While we wait in vigilance we proclaim his presence among us and the victory that he has won for us.
Isaiah’s words call us to boldly rejoice in Christ’s triumph: “Go up on to a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.”
The Gospel reading for today’s liturgy is the opening verses of the Gospel according to Mark. It begins with the proclamation of John the Baptist. Tradition in Judaism held that Elijah would return to usher in the “end times” or the “day of Judgment.” John is seen as Elijah returned. In the beginning of the Gospel his actions set the scene for the coming of Jesus Christ. John prepares for Christ who is the judge and the king. His call to repentance is for preparation so that we might be found worthy to be in the presence of the King and to be judged worthy.
The passage ends with John’s explicit reference to Jesus: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John’s whole ministry is one of preparation, preparation for the coming of the Lord. The Day of Judgment that will be ushered in is not one of doom but rather of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit points toward salvation. So the proclamation of John is a solemn announcement that salvation is at hand. A reason to rejoice and a reason to stay alert.
Today we live in the “in-between” times. We have experienced the salvation Jesus won for us but we live waiting for his return. The Second Letter of St. Peter speaks of the Lord’s second coming. The time of waiting is not one of delay for the letter reminds us: “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day.” The Lord is patient with us and wants us to live so he regularly calls us to repentance.
As we await his return we are to live “in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” On his return he will establish a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” So we are urged to be prepared and to have that deep desire in our souls to be “found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”
The celebration of Advent calls us to be prepared for the Lord’s coming. The preparation involves vigilance, repentance and rejoicing. The season affords us this time of renewal so that when he comes he may find us watchful and ready. And so as we continue to observe Advent we hear the Baptist’s words anew: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths!”