Make straight the paths of the Lord
Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11 [Prepare the way of the Lord]
Ps 85:9-14 [Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation]
2 Peter 3:8-14 [We await new heavens and a a new earth]
Mark 1:1-8 [Make straight the paths of the Lord.]
Remember that last week, we prayed that God may strengthen our decision to press forward in the process of our conversion. We also asked God to grant that we may be able to produce the right fruits which would show that we have been made holy, namely righteous deeds. This prayer now helps us to nourish the hope that we will be found worthy at the time when Christ comes again, and we too will be harvested and so enter into His eternal kingdom. We must admit that this is, truly not an easy process. The prayer which the priest will say at the start of mass today admits this fact: that the conversion process is not that easy. It is a prayer taken from the same source as that of last week, (that is from the 8th Century Gelasian Sacramentary). It is addressed to God in His all-powerful and merciful Being. This is so because without the power from above and without His mercy, any conversion process will be a waste of time. The prayer also states the difficulty inherent in the process of conversion: hindrances coming from our concerns over earthly things. These road blocks have the tendency of impeding the efforts we try to put in as we journey towards an encounter with Christ.
As we celebrate the Eucharist today, our awareness is drawn towards these obstacles. In our prayer, we ask the merciful God to eliminate them from our lives as we set out to meet His Son, Jesus Christ coming this Christmas. When this opening prayer mentions our going to meet the Son of God, it, by so doing, makes a biblical allusion to the Scriptural text which reads: the bridegroom is coming. Go out to meet Him. Here we picture a God coming towards His people – Advent – and a people eager to meet their God. In this eagerness, the people set out in haste regardless of any human obstacle. We must understand that God is the one who initiates such a movement always. The Entrance Antiphon shows God taking the lead, when it sings: People of Zion, Behold, the Lord comes to the salvation of the nations, and the Lord will cause His majestic voice to be heard in the joy of your heart. God is already on His way, and the attention of the people of Zion, His elected people is being drawn to the event. Yes, the Lord comes! Soon we shall understand that it was not just a passive notification. The people of Zion were being invited to respond in like manner: to go out to meet the Lord. So, it is a coming that demands reciprocity. We must take a new direction, changing our course if it is different from the path that leads to this encounter.
But this is not all. If we remember the parable of the Ten Virgins, then we realize there is something more we need as we go out to meet the Bridegroom. The Ten Virgins were referred to as five wise and five foolish virgins: a Gospel text we read a couple of weeks ago. Now you would remember this Advent hymn, recommended during the last Week of Advent when we celebrate one of the privileged seasons from 17th to 25th December with the “O Antiphons”: O Come, thou Wisdom whose decree, doth govern all things peacefully. It is proper then, that the Church invokes this wisdom capable of putting all things in their place and doing so peacefully. The notion of wisdom and foolishness now justifies the last section of the prayer of today which reads: may our learning of heavenly wisdom, gain us admittance to his company. Hence, while there are hindrances we will still make it because we have been taught the heavenly wisdom. It is a lesson of how to put the intellectual knowledge of God to practice in the right manner. If we do this properly, all obstacles will always be taken away completely. In this way, we shall not only make the encounter but we shall also be made worthy of the Divine company. What is meant by belonging to the company of Christ? Belonging to the company of Christ implies having Jesus as a friend. He only called His followers friends when He had made known to them everything He had learnt from his Father: all about the wisdom from above. Belonging to the company of Christ implies that we are now qualified to fall into the class described by Psalm 16 when it says: O Lord, who shall sojourn in thy tent? Who shall dwell on thy holy hill? Then it gives the reply He who walks blamelessly, and does what is right, and speaks truth from his heart; who does not slander with his tongue, and does no evil to his friend, nor takes up a reproach against his neighbour; in whose eyes a reprobate is despised, but who honours those who fear the Lord; who swears to his own hurt and does not change; who does not put out his money at interest, and does not take a bribe against the innocent. He who does these things shall never be moved. All these admonitions agree with what John will later tell those who come to be baptized in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
Today’s first reading takes us to the writings of the Prophet Isaiah. As he makes us recall how Israel and we too, are a people loved by God, a people called. The words of Isaiah bring home the reality of Advent. They stand out as a prophecy that is now fulfilled in John the Baptist. The setting is the desert and the content is the Good News. As we read through, we begin to build up an image of a new people, a new-born Church. We picture a people – and ourselves too, once in exiled, now being made to return to a life of freedom. We see a new exodus. We imagine the Glory of the Lord, full of power and might, leading us again through all the obstacles as it did to the people of Israel when they left the Nile region and crossed the sea of Reeds: a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The power of God as it was in the days of old is now being awaited. Our expectations are high, as we set out. We begin to figure out the route that must lead us to encounter this powerful, One God, besides whom there is no other: a God who comes to bring us salvation; a God who means to be our justification.
In all these, we are open to the voice of the prophet whose task it is, to bring consolation not curse to a people elected by God. In this we wait for a God who means to help and not to place obstacles on our way. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins”. It becomes evident, why the Church invokes but the Almighty and Merciful attributes of God!
Isaiah then calls for the necessary response if this restoration of a fallen people must be accomplished: an obedient preparation, which calls for our being ready, our being converted, our filling valleys and levelling mountains. Origen, one of the Fathers of the Church, in his writing Homily of Origen comments on this section of Isaiah’s texts saying: “Where we possess peace, patience and goodness, we do not only cease from being valleys, but we begin to become the Mountain of God.” There is therefore a distinction between the Mountain of God, which we are called to become, and the mountain that we need to level in preparation for Christ’s coming. Indeed, the undesirable mountains and hills that must be brought down are the powers of the enemy that fight against us. These are the earthly cares that act as a hindrance to any liberating encounter with the Son of God.
Notice that the Entrance Antiphon has called our attention to the coming of the Lord. In doing so it adds: and the Lord will cause his majestic voice to be heard in the joy of your heart. Then Isaiah announces in the reading “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” the he adds, “for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” The Lord will speak. The Lord has spoken. Ours is to listen. The opening lines of the Responsorial Psalm reads: “Let me hear what God the LORD will speak,” It follows that preparing for the coming of the Lord entails listening to the voice of the Lord; listening to His words as spoken through His prophets. They are words of peace; words directed to His people; words that speak of the nearness of the salvation that comes from the Lord; words to be devoured by those who fear the Lord; words that when listened to cause the glory of the Lord to pitch His tent among us, to dwell in our midst – Immanuel!
The Psalm describes what is going on, the content of the words we are invited to pay heed to. It is about the mystery of the incarnation, the meeting of steadfast love and faithfulness; the encounter between righteousness and peace which will be characterized by their kissing each other. The drama will take place in this manner: Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky. We must immediately see the fusion of two natures to produce one person: It is about a wedding. It is heaven wedding earth and both of them producing a fruit of that encounter. The psalmist sets a wedding procession. In it the initiative is from above: Righteousness, now known to be that which comes from above, the Divine partner, will take the lead and will trace the path, to be followed by Faithfulness. Listen again to the words of the famous Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd… He leads me in paths of righteousness…If we too want to be taken up into the gift of divine sonship which Christmas is bringing, we must allow ourselves to be lead on this path of righteousness and we must follow the path faithfully.
Fidelity in righteousness is the Christian comportment as we wait. The Second Letter of St Peter used in our liturgy today takes our minds to moments of crises that often characterize our attitude of waiting. In our mundane world waiting is associated with time and precision. In a world where Righteousness and Faithfulness are wedded, a thousand years are like a day and vice versa. The dispositions are so mastered that waiting has become part and parcel of the modus Vivendi. Peter is giving us tips on Christian comportment, the path traced by the Lord, the Righteous one; the path to be followed by all. Peter brings together ideas associated with waiting, the Advent of Christ; the faith of those who mean to follow Him; the nature of how our God is and operates; the Divine world and its principles; His patience or apparent delay before which we need to remain confident; His universal saving Will; that which must constitute a novelty in this process. Peter’s eyes are on the Day of the Lord, the Parousia or the Second coming: a day that will come unannounced like a thief, causing the heavens and the earth to pass away, using fire as the instrument of judgment. But it is a Day that brings with it a new heaven and a new earth thanks not only to the mercy of God but also to the kind of persons we are and the manner in which we have been waiting: in holiness and gentleness. Peter evokes thoughts of sweetness versus vengeance, of the changeable and changelessness, of justice and injustice, of salvation and condemnation, of spiritual trials and our consequent life. We must wait for the future glory in a spirit of love even of our enemies, living the works of mercy and letting the will of God be done. So Peter ends up admonishing us: “Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace”.
The Gospel takes us to the moment of action; to the time when God, in history, brings to fulfilment the prophecies about the coming of His Son. The hour has come. At this stage, John the Baptist is at the centre. He is the Elijah that had to come again. It is about the nature of his baptism, the Good News he bears, the call to conversion, the issue of the desert experience, the role the spirit of God has in all these as well as the power of God at work. John, the precursor stands out as a symbol of self-denial, courage, obedience, posing as a powerful preacher, humble and holy, ardently zealous and eventually will be honoured by Christ. Remarkably John performed no miracle, but Christ will speak of him as the greatest of all born of woman.
John is introduced in the Liturgy of today as a central figure in the economy of Advent. Mark cites the text of the first reading making the Gospel a reiteration and fulfilment of the spirit of that text. It is all about advent and the preparation we ought to make. This time, it is not the coming at the end of time as Peter indicates in the second reading. It is about the coming of Christ in the flesh. Salvation is near. People are taking steps in preparing themselves. John does not hesitate to assert the supremacy of Christ over him. The distinguishing mark will be the nature of baptism they administer. John’s baptism is of forgiveness and the repentance of sins. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
It is for texts like this that the season of Advent, out of necessity encourages the use of the sacrament of reconciliation, the tool which the Church now uses in celebrating the conversion of souls, as we wait for the coming of the Lord.
Perhaps we should end our reflections with the beautiful words of the Gelasian collect: Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son, but may our learning of heavenly wisdom gain us admittance to his company.