“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Isaiah the prophet speaks these words to Israel. Mark the Evangelist sees them fulfilled in the work of John the Baptist. Preparing for the Lord is one of the focuses of our Advent observance. “Advent” means coming. Jesus has come, is coming and continues to come.
Preparation is something with which we are all familiar. We prepare for things all the time. For example, students in school when they have a test coming up they prepare by studying.
Christmas is just around the corner – two weeks and a day. Think of all the things that are done to prepare for Christmas – shopping for presents, decorations have to be hung, invitations sent or responded to, meals to be planned plus a lot of cookies being baked.
Athletes preparing for an upcoming season or a particular match, game or race will spend much time in practice to prepare.
Couples preparing for marriage will focus, besides all the activities surrounding the wedding day, on their relationship and the commitment they are entering. The list goes on and on.
We’ve been hearing the call for preparation and readiness in the Gospel accounts for several weeks now. Preparation is important so we can be ready when the Lord arrives. This week we gain a particular insight into our preparation – that is repentance.
The word repentance has two aspects that we might consider. In the original language (Greek) the word is “metanoia” – that literally means a “change of mind.” This is one of the aspects of John’s call to repent.
We are all affected by the culture in which we live. Cultural norms, practices, and ways get woven into our way of life just because we live in a particular place and time.
Particular aspects of any given culture can be good, bad or indifferent. Certainly the ones that bolster or support us in doing what is “good” or “right” are helpful on this journey of life. Those that are lead us away from the good, away from the Gospel, away from the Lord are considered “bad.”
When we hear the call to repent, we hear a call to examine our way of life. What are our ways of thinking, deciding and acting? How do we make decisions? What decisions do we make that are informed by the Gospel?
Do we make any decisions, without making decisions but “going with the flow”? When we “repent” we consciously decide to, using a colloquial expression, “Go with God.” We seek to know His will and His Way. We choose to listen to Him speak to us through His Son and then to respond in faith. We choose to do what is right and good and true because it is His way – the way to Life.
Another aspect of repentance is related to the times when we have done wrong, made a decision in opposition to the good, true or beautiful. We call these “sin.” In these cases, repentance involves a turning from and a turning toward. We turn from sin and turn to God. Nothing to fear here because God is merciful. He loves us even when we sin but he also loves it when we turn from sin. Why because sin – sometimes in small ways, sometimes in big ways – deprives us of life and Jesus came that we might have life and “have it in abundance.”
The gospel recalls John’s mission of preparation as tied to God mercy and the remission of sins. John proclaimed the “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Most people in our context, when we think of baptism, we automatically think of babies being baptized by the pouring of a little water and the priest or deacon saying the words.
John was baptizing adults in the Jordan River. They would go fully into the water. It was quite a dramatic event.
People coming into the desert would inevitably be dirty. The sand and dust and soil they picked up on the way might, for us, symbolically represent sin. When they “repent” – express their sorrow – and are washed in the river, the sins are symbolically taken away. John’s baptism is one of preparation; hence, he goes to great lengths to distinguish his mission from Jesus’. “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.”
The baptism we undergo is much, much more than John’s – because Jesus is much, much more than John. He is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Now baptism does not symbolically remove sin, it actually removes sin. After baptism, we all know, we still fall into sin so the call to repentance remains. John’s words echo through the centuries calling us to express our sorrow and to seek forgiveness.
Isaiah speaks in beautiful and grand terms of the Advent of God’s mercy, “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. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
The transformation is incredible. The same transformation happens in us when we allow God’s mercy into our lives. Healing happens. Jesus, who always abides within us through the Spirit, finds new spaces in the home of our heart. Repentance opens the doors. And His divine life within us finds new expression. It is a very enriching experience.
Saint Mark begins his narrative with these words, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” The “gospel” is the good news of salvation, the forgiveness of sin, delivery from death, freedom from bondage.
Isaiah prophecies the glad tidings when he says, “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!” The call to repentance is a call to share in the life God gives us through Christ Jesus. This is good news.
Advent involves preparation. Preparing a welcoming heart for the Lord. Opening ourselves to new experiences of His love and mercy. Inviting His healing presence into our very being. Experiencing the divine life of love anew.
All this is waiting for us and is shared when we repent.
And so today God speaks to us through Isaiah, Mark, and John – “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
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.