Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever Baruch 5:1
The proclamation of Isaiah read in today’s Gospel clearly defines the mission of John the Baptist to proclaim the arrival of the Messiah which takes place in the time of John. But the words of Isaiah, which reveal the substance of John’s preaching and mission, are also directed to us today, for they are a clarion call to the Christian people during the season of Advent to prepare to meet the Lord. John was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah by heralding the imminent coming of the Messiah, and yet 2000 years later these words of Isaiah remain as challenging for us as they were when Isaiah first wrote them and when John spoke them. So we Christians are called today by both ancient prophets and by holy Church herself to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Advent is a time that is to be spent preparing ourselves, first of all, to meet Christ the Messiah and Lord here and now, especially at Christmas, and above all when He comes again in glory at the end of time. So when we say “to meet him here and now” this clearly is not restricted at the celebration of His coming at Christmas when we recall his first “advent” in our world. For the faithful, Christ comes here and now, that is, every single day in the holy Sacraments, and most wonderfully in the Holy Eucharist. For those who long for Jesus today, every day, like those in John’s day who longed for him to come, He is always coming to us, always fulfilling the prophecy which proclaims and promises that at his coming “all flesh will see the salvation of God.”
Nonetheless, Christmas is certainly a most appropriate and effective time for the Church to direct the Baptist’s message to her children. It can truly help us in our daily life to celebrate in a special way that first entry of Christ into our world, and to do so with all the joy that accompanied his first coming for the faithful little ones then. Indeed, we know that Christmas is often the only time during the whole year when many Christians, even many Catholics, give much thought at all to Jesus Christ or to matters of religion. And that encounter is not to be minimalized in its importance, for it can be a true moment of grace for these souls whom Christ deeply loves and has redeemed by his sacrifice.
Indeed, at Christmas we all are reminded in a very powerful but simple way that this world is definitely not all there is for us, and it also teaches us that in God’s eyes this world and its affairs, which literally consume the lives of most people, are in fact not at all primary in God’s judgment. What Christmas and the divine child in the crib proclaim is that what ultimately matters in this life is our getting close to the One who was born of a Virgin on Christmas day. It teaches us in that simple and beautiful event that our relationship to Jesus Christ is the true key to our happiness, and not just in this world but for all eternity in the world to come.
Christmas, when properly celebrated, which means above all properly liturgically celebrated, effectively focuses our attention on the eternal. For the only reason we have this celebration is the fact that this newborn child came into our world from His eternity. He infinitely lowered himself to enter our time and to assume our nature, and His divine humility went to the extreme of entering our time and history as a helpless infant. He did all this for no other reason than to save us from our sins, and even when that mission was accomplished, and He ascended to the Father in glory, nonetheless He also remains with us, remains present in time and history, in Word, sacrament and Grace, until time and history are brought to their culmination in His return in glory.
Thus, we now await Him again, and with great hope, to return once again from His Heavenly Kingdom to judge all flesh, both the living and the dead, and take his elect with Him into the Eternal Kingdom of His Father.
We know by faith that His final judgment will not only determine our fate, our eternal destiny, but also will transform the universe and make it part of that Heavenly Kingdom as well. Thus Isaiah’s admonition to prepare the way of the Lord takes on an even deeper meaning when it is projected against the end of time, our eternal destiny, and the glorious transformation of all creation.
So if one takes Christmas seriously, viewing it from this eternal perspective, it’s hard to avoid the central questions about life, judgement, glory and damnation. And so Advent is the perfect time for the Church to send John the Baptist into our lives again and again, to preach to us, to prepare us to meet the Lord. Every year John preaches to us our need to repent, and quotes Isaiah who warns us to prepare for the Lord’s coming by filling in the valleys of our sins and omissions in the service of God and to level the mountains of our pride which puts just about everything before our relationship to God.
We all need John the Baptist, precisely because he was not the kind of prophet or preacher who made men feel easy about their lives. His basic message was about repentance, that sorrow which leads to forgiveness of sins, and it was this repentance that he demanded of everyone as the critical means for preparing the way for the Lord. It was the message which he repeated insistently, and the crowds flocked to the Jordan to receive his baptism of repentance. So too the Church today recalls that message to help us to be prepared to meet Christ, not only at Christmas, but every day until the end of time/
Perhaps some Catholics today may find this penitential approach to Advent to be somewhat too negative to prepare for the joy of the Christmas season to follow. But the Church, like John, remains insistent on this theme of repentance, and resistance to it is unfortunate, a barren replay of the resistance that John himself met with when he preached this message.
But the theme is not only John’s. Our other two readings today also support this message of John, in their own way. The first reading from Baruch, which is quite joyful, speaks of the mountains being leveled and the age-old depths being filled to level ground. The spiritual interpretation of this imagery surely refers to the age-old depths of human sin and mountains of human pride, and Baruch speaks with joy only because these changes enable man to walk once again with his God in peace and friendship.
Likewise, St. Paul tells the Philippians that he prays for them, that on the day of the Lord, the day of his coming, they will be found “pure and blameless, filled with the fruit of righteousness.” For Paul too, then, only when a person has a clear conscience and acts blamelessly before God can he or she be truly ready to meet the Lord, now or on the “day of the Lord,” and have that clarity of insight to know what really matters in this world.
Indeed. What will really matter, then, when we stand before the Lord? Will it be our stocks and bonds, or the state of the economy, the money and other things we have accumulated over the years? No, all that will truly matter is that we have a blameless conscience and pure heart, and nothing else. That is Paul’s message, John’s message, Baruch’s message and the Church’s message to us today.
And if Christians do not heed this message today, is it not because they have become deaf and closed to spiritual things. Perhaps this heedlessness, this deafness, is present because they have closed their ears just as so many did when Jesus preached the hard sayings, or when John demanded repentance as the condition for meeting the Lord.
Or perhaps it is caused by a long absence from the confessional which deadens consciences, so that blameless now means blameless in one’s own eyes, with no reference to God. Or perhaps it is simply due to a kind of spiritual sloth or inertia that has taken over one’s life, weighed down as we all are at times by the cares of this world. Often Christians seem just too tired to make the effort demanded by John and Paul and Baruch. Or perhaps it is simply because one is no longer inspired by the thought of heaven, and all too content with the meager fare of this world.
The remedy for all this resistance and lack of readiness is also given to us by these inspired writers today: first, to rouse ourselves and stand upon the heights of the Church’s vision of Heaven, to struggle once again to see the light of His glory who comes not to condemn the world but to save us. Let us hear with joy those words that He comes with mercy and justice for our salvation.
Then, after seeing and hearing, let us be courageous; perhaps the repentance called for may cost us, but as our Psalm today promises us, “those who sow in tears, shall reap rejoicing, although they go forth weeping, … they shall come back rejoicing.”
And finally, let us hope in the Lord. Paul’s word express the Church’s great hope for each of us and for all of God’s children on this 2nd Sunday of Advent: “I am sure of this much: that he who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion right up to the day of Christ Jesus … so that you may be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in you, to the Glory and praise of God.” May this be the fruit of our Advent preparation. Amen.