The Second Sunday of Advent: Prepare the Way of the Lord!
A homily for the second Sunday of Advent. As I was reflecting on the readings, I happened to reread a poster created for me many years ago by the students in my first year seminar, Radical Christian Poverty. A quote from Dorothy Day got me thinking about preparation. And then, from a different direction, I began to think about the purported “war on Christmas” (see the cartoon on the Vox Nova Facebook page). What follows is the result. As always, I would value your feedback: I am essentially trying to teach myself homiletics the hard way, and any help would be appreciated.
Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, and our readings continue to guide us on a double path: first, towards Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation, when we celebrate the first coming of Christ into the world. Second, they point towards the end of time, when Christ will come again in glory. The Advent liturgy reminds us that we are in an in-between time, a journey that started with the resurrection, and leads towards the Kingdom. In the first reading we heard the prophet Baruch, writing to the Jewish community in exile in Babylon. Baruch calls on them to put aside their mourning and misery, and wrap themselves in “the cloak of justice from God”. Their exile is coming to an end, and God will prepare their path through the wilderness to return to Jerusalem: the mountains will be leveled, the valleys filled in, and their path will straight. They will journey home rejoicing.
In the same way, each Advent season we remind ourselves that we should prepare for our own journey home to God. Advent is a more somber time. Our liturgical color is purple, the color of penance; we do not sing the Gloria. But we look forward with hope. While mindful of our own sinfulness, we are called to take off our sack cloth, wash off the ashes, and prepare ourselves by remembering the great things the Lord has done for us.
In today’s Gospel John the Baptist calls on the people of Israel to prepare themselves for the coming of God. Jesus–Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us”—had already come into the world. But he was hidden and was now going to be revealed through his public ministry. To get ready for his arrival, John announced a baptism of repentance, but he also promised a time of joy, when “all flesh will see the salvation of God”. There is sorrow for our sins, but greater joy because of God’s mercy.
John also called on the people to “prepare the way of the Lord,” to “make straight His paths”. This is a reversal from the prophet Baruch, where God will prepare the way for his people. Now, we must prepare the way for God!
How do we prepare the way of the Lord? Traditionally, we use the Advent season to prepare for Christmas. We do this symbolically by decorating our houses: we put up lights, Christmas trees and nativity scenes. At the same time however, we are caught up in more worldly concerns as we struggle to complete our Christmas shopping or plan the “perfect” holiday for our families. All of this busyness may seem like preparation. But it is not and in fact in many ways we are no different than our secular neighbors—we may have a nativity, and we may insist on saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”, but does any of this really prepare the way of the Lord? No, it does not: leading the counter-attack against the “war on Christmas” while continuing to be trapped by this secular carnival does not make straight His paths.
To prepare the way of the Lord, we must prepare our hearts. In Lent we are reminded by the prophet Joel that God wants us to “rend our hearts, not our garments.” In the same way, in the Advent season we should prepare our hearts, and not our garments. Just as we do during Lent, we can do this by prayer, fasting and almsgiving. We cannot hear “the voice crying out in the desert” unless we stop to listen. Take some time to pray quietly. It does not matter how: pray the rosary, open the scriptures, spend a few extra minutes today in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Step away from the hectic rush, the mad Christmas shopping. Step away from the fruitcake, the cookies, the chocolate: Christmas celebrations will be here, and on our hips, soon enough. Give a gift to someone who cannot repay you in kind. Give the gift of yourself to someone who needs a shoulder to cry on or simply needs someone to be with them.
Beyond this, take the time this Advent season to make straight the Lord’s paths. Everyone of us is called on the journey to the new Jerusalem, but far too many people find the road filled with mountains to high to climb, canyons too deep to cross. The poor, the homeless, immigrants and refugees fleeing war and crushing poverty, they all need our help on the journey. By our almsgiving, we lift them over rough patches, we carry their burdens for a little while. But they need more than that. The Lord tells us that mountains are to be made low and the deep valleys filled in: all the obstacles that keep them from the journey must be removed. Many of these obstacles were made by us and people like us; perhaps not always deliberately, but nevertheless by what we have done, and what we have failed to do. And God is calling us to change this. We may not be able to end war and violence, poverty and homelessness, but we can work to make lasting changes. We can, by our efforts and through God’s grace, make the world more peaceful, more just, a place where human dignity is not crushed by an economic system more concerned with profits than with people. We can reject fear, reject bigotry, reject the terrible illusion that we can solve our problems with more guns and more threats of violence.
This Advent season, prepare the way of the Lord, so that together, rejoicing, we may advance secure in the glory of God.