By Fr Jim Butler
“Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight”.
Irrespective of the doom and gloom brought about by the Corona Virus this year, winter in the northern hemisphere tends to be a dark and depressing time. The weather is usually cold and wet, and the light of day doesn’t linger for very long. It is almost natural for us to be aware of (and even to be affected by) the darkness of our world. In a kind of paradoxical way we recognise the power of light in our lives because of its very absence.
Then the world becomes a completely different place to us with the dawning of spring. Here there is more sunshine and colour and a real sense of vitality about, as the trees, the shrubs and the flowers begin to sprout and to blossom again. And yet, we know that in order for this growth to take place, the natural world requires both darkness and light.
Well, our human nature is no different. It too contains both darkness and light. Each of us is capable of showing great strength or great weakness. Equally, we all experience periods of darkness and light in our lives, whether through times of suffering and loss, our disappointments, or periods of happiness and joy. Consequently, it is necessary to regularly take stock of our lives in order for growth, healing and development to take place. Both as individuals and as community, we need to continually renew the way in which we live out our Christian vocation.
Well, the season of Advent provides just such an opportunity, where the readings encourage us to reflect more deeply on this very process. Advent is a season of anticipation and hope, during which we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. But, of course, as we recall the birth of Christ, we also look forward to his second coming. And just like the sunlight of spring, the light of Christ is to be welcomed, since this is what brings vitality and growth to our spiritual soil. Christ alone can reach into the darkness and gloom of our hectic and busy world and bring forth these fruits of light and hope.
And there are perhaps few readings in Scripture which better convey this sense of expectation and hope than today’s 1st Reading from the prophet Isaiah. One can almost hear the trumpets! Just as this passage speaks of the Lord returning to lead his people from exile, similarly the coming of Christ will lead us back to our true home in God. This concept is then further developed by Paul in the 2nd Reading where he reminds us to be prepared for this coming and the beginning of the new creation – a passage which neatly reflects the words of Jesus in last Sunday’s Gospel to ‘be on your guard and stay awake’. And so, this anticipation of the birth of Christ (which we experience during these Advent days) is hereby placed in the context of the eschatological (or final) return of Christ.
And today’s Gospel begins another interesting sequence. For the next three weeks, Jesus doesn’t appear in the Gospel directly, but the Gospels do speak about him. Hence, the sense of anticipation and waiting which characterise Advent is seen to grow from week to week. The message of John the Baptist is one of hope and expectation. But it is also a message which challenges us. John calls on us to repent and to ‘turn again towards God’. If we are to fully understand (and truly celebrate) the coming of Christ, then we, too, need to turn. We, too, need to undergo a real change of heart. We have to first recognise our own need to receive Christ, and then begin to open ourselves to his presence.
John calls on us to ‘prepare a way’. In other words, the commitment we are asked to make is to clear a space for God in the midst of our crazy and busy lives. In short, we are asked to give a few minutes each day to stop, to be still, to listen, and to consider the things that are truly important.
So, today, let us decide to prepare that space for the Lord this Advent - in our hearts, in our families, and in our parish communities.