“Hear ye! Hear ye!” “Listen up!” “Hark!” These are all calls to listen to a message. The message is not one that is commonplace or regular, rather it is important news. The messenger wants to draw the attention of people going about things of everyday life.
We can think of people walking in a town center. Some are going to get something to eat. Some are on their way to work. Some are shopping. Hearing the words, they will stop and listen. Today, if watching TV we might see a banner pop up reading “breaking news.” Or if we are listening to the radio, we might hear a few beeps. Most of us will intuitively watch or listen to get the news.
John the Baptist is the Lord’s messenger. While he is not in the town or on a television, radio or internet, his call to listen is the same. He harkens people to hear some great news: the day of salvation is approaching. “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God.” God is coming to be with us. This surely is news worth a listen.
He continues with the good news: “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” John’s message is one of great joy and glory. His words signal the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. He will usher in God’s reign.
While some had confused the messenger with the message, he made it clear: “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.” The great news is welcomed as people confess their sins and are baptized. They are getting ready for the great event and the arrival of Christ.
John brings to fulfillment the words of Isaiah in the first reading: “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.” The coming of the Lord is a day of mercy. People will be delivered from their sins. The burden of guilt will be lifted and the faithful will be raised in joy and freedom from their sin.
John uses images of change – for example mountains being made low and valleys being filled in – to speak of the incredible, remarkable or awesome transformation that will take place. So great is the coming of the Lord it is as though the world is being made new. The image is meant to be applied to ourselves, not just the world of nature. Encountering the Christ, being baptized with the Holy Spirit, will effect a change in us, a transformation beyond imagination. We mere human beings will be raised to participate in divine life, the very life of God.
While John’s message applies originally to the first coming of the Lord, it also applies to our preparations for his second coming. Something has dramatically changed between John’s time and ours — the Messiah has come. He arrived and showed us the way to live. He, standing in for all humanity, was obedient to the Father. He listened and responded, accepting his mission of love, his mission of mercy. He gave himself completely in offering himself on the cross. His faithfulness and trust in the Father was greeted with resurrection and life.
This life has been handed on to us through baptism and the sacraments. Through him we enter into the eternal life of God. Now as we await his return, a time of which we know neither the day or hour, we prepare.
The preparation is one of joyful expectation. We eagerly await his return to deliver us from all those forces that try to rob us of or distract us from the life in which we already share. These forces are powerful. They seek to instill fear, anxiety and even despair. 2020 is a year in which it does not take much effort to identify some of these forces. The coronavirus gets the top billing in the news but it is also accompanied by racism, social unrest, violence, rioting, abuse, illness, death, division, anger, frustration, confusion, poverty, unemployment and disillusionment. The day will come when these are permanently eradicated. While we wait, we have been given a means to confront these obstacles.
The means to battle these come from different aspects of being human. For example, we have our minds. Some of our doctors and medical professionals take on the task of battling the virus. We also have our free will and the ability to make choices for the good in dealing with social discord and injustice. But there is another side of life, given to us by the Lord himself. We who have been incorporated into divine life through the sacraments have the gift of the Spirit. The spirit dwelling within us gives us a gift more powerful than anything that would seek to destroy us or our communion.
It is the Spirit who brings inner peace and contentment. It is the Spirit who fills us with hope. It is the Spirit who fortifies us with the gifts of patience and forbearance. Tapping into the Spirit, who dwells within, gives us the strength to continue moving forward in confidence. We do this through striving for the good each and every day. We strive to respond “yes” to the life we have been given in Christ, the Messiah.
Saying “yes” means praising God for his goodness. Saying “yes” means trusting in the Lord and caring for those around us. Saying “yes” means giving thanks for the blessing we receive each day – perhaps the first of which is waking up. Saying “yes” means having compassion for the poor, the isolated, the ill, the grieving and the depressed. Saying “yes” means helping those in need especially those whom we encounter in everyday life. This is how we conduct ourselves, as Second Peter urges, “in holiness and devotion,” and “without spot or blemish before him, at peace.”
The journey through Advent provides us an opportunity to grow in hope. Hope leads us forward in joyful expectation. The foundation for hope is God’s saving activity of the past most especially in sending his Son’ whose birth we celebrate in a few weeks. The Lord has come, is present with us and will come again. He is the One who delivered us, who delivers us and will deliver us again.
And so we receive the word of John with open minds and hearts: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.
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