St. John the Baptist Preaching, c. 1665, by Mattia Preti
We are almost at the end of this calendar year. A lot of people remark on how they can’t wait for this year to end. What they mean is, of course, they can’t wait for the problems that have come with this year to go away. With the continuing restrictions, a lot of people are worn out, tired. The restrictions and change in environment have meant that for many, problems that were simmering beneath the surface have exploded. Maybe it’s brought out the worst in relationships, you find it’s brought out the worst in you. The things you relied on to keep you going during normal times have been suddenly taken away. This might be true in very real ways: with lost jobs and livelihood, but we’ve all experienced something of this. Unfortunately, even as this year ends, it doesn’t mean our problems will go away. Years change, but the things with which we battle remain.
For those waiting for this year to end, however, there is good news – and better news. The good news is that this year has come to an end and a new year begun in the Church – that’s Advent. The better news is that, unlike the false hope that the new calendar year gives for change – so everyone goes out and parties only to find that nothing has changed – the new year of the Church comes with great promise and hope. This promise is what is heard in today’s Word.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem... her warfare is ended, her iniquity pardoned.” (Isa 40:1)
This comfort comes to a people weary and worn out, it is comfort that can bring change, strengthen, and relieve your burden. Your warfare is ended. The battles that you have been fighting, are at and end, because God fights for you. And you hear in the same announcement of Good news:
“Here is the Lord coming with power, his arm subduing all things to him. The prize of his victory is with him, his trophies all go before him.” (Isa 40:9-11)
The arm of God is a symbol of his power. It is God who is coming on the warpath. He is the one who is subduing everything that is far too big for us to fight. And his rewards, his trophies are coming for those who wait. What was proclaimed in the gospel, was first proclaimed to a people as worn out, wearied and helpless – a hundred times more than ourselves, even if it be hard to believe. Israel was at their wits end. They’re at this point where if God doesn’t come to their help, there is no hope. They are enslaved, but the local rulers are in the hands of Rome. If you tried to go to the Temple, even the high priest has been appointed by Rome. Even the Temple has been compromised. Where do you go for help? For about 300 years, now, they had had no prophet. They felt like God had abandoned them. And in this place of emptiness, this wilderness, they suddenly hear a voice, the voice of a prophet, announcing the action of God. And they abandon everything and go to the wilderness. The city where you live is where you can take care of yourself. In the desert, there is nothing. Only God can help. They have found that all their means of help has failed them. But God is now acting – and so they leave it all and go to the wilderness. And John’s announcement begins by calling on the people to prepare the way. What is this way?
Prior to Vatican II, the calling to the religious life – being a monk or a nun or friar, used to be referred to as a ‘higher vocation’. We don’t use this very often in our equality driven culture, as it sounds elitist. Far from it, it was called so – at least partly – because it is a ‘higher way’, like the highway. The highway (or motorway) is where you can go fast, to your destination, unlike a country road with its twists and turns and you have to drive with caution. The vows the religious make – poverty, chastity and obedience, meant that they were free of their attachments, things which held them back from being united with God.
At the beginning of Advent, this cry comes to us: Prepare the way of the Lord. It might sound like an instruction to become holy in order to meet God. But it’s just the opposite. If you’ve tried at all, you know you’re not able to fight this battle by yourself. And this highway which is being cleared, it is God, who is coming to meet us. He is the one coming quickly. But in clearing this path, we are able to receive of his visitation. This visit of God comes with his power and grace. What sort of preparation are we called to do? The people repented and confessed their sins. To repent means I turn around. I look at the way I’m on and decide if I want to continue this or change. It is very practical. If we find that actually, this is not how I should be living, then I can turn around and confess my sins: I can name what is holding me back, I confess. The preparation is to ask ourselves what it is that we want. What grace do we need at this time? Are we willing to let go of the things that hold us back? It might involve actually going to the sacrament of confession.
What sins do you find you cannot overcome? Who is it that you find you’re unable to forgive? Who is it that you are unable to love? Do we want to see these things change? But we need to name it. The cry of the Baptist comes to you and me. This cry is not something that was heard only 2000 years ago. It is being heard right now, in today’s liturgy. This is the power of the Liturgy. When the word is proclaimed here, this word is happening, God is acting on his Word. It needs a heart to believe it. Then, it can bring about what it promises. To those who are willing, this grace comes with the Eucharist.