Second Sunday of Advent – Year C
[Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:3-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6]
Driving through the streets of Edmonton these days, frequently we come across flashing signs announcing, “Parking Ban, Phase 2, now in effect.” We all know what that is about. Streets need to be cleared of snow and ice, yet that can only happen effectively if obstacles to the snowplows, like cars parked on the roadside, are removed. Hence, the ban. I mention this because our experience of the need to clear the way, and the requirement that obstacles be banned for it to happen, can lead us into the message given in the Word of God.
As occurs in every Advent season, once again we have a passage from the Gospels that speaks of the call of John the Baptist to prepare the way of the Lord. He appears in the desert, and tells the people that all must clear the way for the coming of the Messiah. That clearing, he tells us, takes place by means of repentance. As we hear St. Luke apply to John the ancient prophecy of Isaiah, we see also that, for this clearing to take place, a number of obstacles need to be set aside.
Let’s consider first the clearing itself. As it is used in the Bible, repentance means a completely new mindset, a clearing from our way of thinking everything contrary to divine teaching. This in turn issues in a radically new way of living, in which all ways of speech and patterns of behaviour not in accord with the commands of God are pushed away. What also sounds out clearly from the Bible is the insistence that God does the clearing. Just as we rely on others who know what they are doing to plow our streets, we depend upon the wisdom and mercy of God to clear away our transgressions and blade through the hardness of our hearts, frozen solid by sin.
This brings us to the necessary removal of obstacles. The prophecy of Isaiah speaks of these poetically in terms of mountains to be made low, valleys to be raised and crooked ways to be made straight. We heard the same imagery in the first reading from Baruch. There is no greater obstacle to repentance, to the clearing of the way by God’s mercy, than the mountain of pride. This inordinate self-love looms large as an obstacle to grace because of its refusal to acknowledge dependence and admit of any error. At the opposite extreme is the valley of despair. Not infrequently do we encounter people so weighed down with the guilt of serious sin that they cannot believe God’s mercy would ever “find their street”, as it were, to clear a new way for them. Crooked roadways may not be common in an urban street system plotted on a grid, or in rural areas where country roads run straight for miles, but they do feature prominently in an unrepentant heart. When self-absorption impels us to follow any and every desire, the pathways we set for the direction of our lives are not only crooked and tortuous, but also often lead nowhere but to cul-de-sacs, and we know how challenging it is to clear them! Pride, despair, and self-centeredness – these are the obstacles on which we must impose a ban, one not only seasonal but also year-round, to allow God’s mercy constant access to the roadway of the human heart.
Now, when our streets become treacherous due to snow and ice, it is for reasons not of our own making. The difficulty arises from climactic conditions, such as the recent above-normal temperatures followed by below-freezing ones, that leave our streets, sidewalks, and trails covered with ice. Although we haven’t caused the mess, nevertheless we do have to find safe ways to navigate through it. Something similar can be said of the Christian life. While the difficulties we experience may well spring from personal fault, it is also true that prevailing “atmospheric conditions”, such as secularism, hedonism and individualism, create many slippery situations that we must deal with as we strive to live our lives in fidelity to the Gospel. How do we do this? To navigate the snow-covered streets, we put winter tires on the vehicle; to manoeuvre along the icy trails, people will often use walking sticks or poles. Where do we find support to live as Christians when prevailing conditions make it difficult to travel along the path of faith?
Notice how the text from St. Luke’s Gospel opens with a description of the challenging atmosphere surrounding John the Baptist. The Evangelist describes the political climate, naming the most powerful Roman and Jewish rulers, who did not take kindly to his religious message. Luke furthermore points out that John the Baptist lived in the wilderness, an unforgiving and oppressive climate evocative of the arid and intolerant atmosphere that would weigh heavily upon him. What Luke also reveals, though – and this is the key – is the support given to John by God Himself. He tells us that, in the very midst of the “atmospheric conditions” so dangerous to people of faith, “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah.”
In the divine Word spoken to him, John discovered his duty and the assurance that God’s love would carry him as he fulfilled it. So, too, with us. That same divine Word spoken to John became incarnate in Jesus Christ. In him, and in all that he has taught us, we are given the light and the strength we need to remain faithful, especially at those moments when conditions not of our own making seem to prevail against us. This is what lies behind St. Paul’s conviction, shared with the Philippians, that “the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” As did St. Paul, and as did St. John the Baptist, we, too, must open our hearts to receive the Word of God as it comes to us in the concrete circumstances of our lives, and allow its power to be our strength and support along the often treacherous pathways that lie before us.
That very power reaches us now in the Eucharist. May our communion with the Lord clear our way by moving us to new and deeper repentance, give us the grace to keep our life clear of all obstacles to his love, and preserve us in fidelity to his Word.
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
December 5th, 2021