Today’s Gospel reading is like the opening lines of Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” While a harsh Roman Procurator holds the people of Israel under the iron fist of Rome, while puppet kings like the Herods occupy the throne of King David’s homeland, while Annas and Caiaphas are managing theTemple in Jerusalem—in the midst of all of this oppression, God has not failed to act. In this terrible time when those who loved God were without power or influence, the word of the Lord comes to John in the desert. It’s not to the empereror or the dignitaries, not to the established religious authorities of the time, but to a wild-eyed fanatical peasant that the vision of a Kingdom of hope and justice is revealed.
John has a message for the people around him who have observed their young sons being nailed to crosses outside the city gates as a warning against rebelling against the might of Rome. He gives them a message of liberation, revealing to them that,despite appearances, they are not impotent. Through their actions, they will usher in God’s Reign on earth. “’Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'”
The first time I ever drove through mountains, I was amazed at how high they really were, and how precarious everything seemed when viewed from that height. I was in my car, of course, so I wasn’t forced to expend any effort in my ascent. Had I been walking, however, it would have been a long, arduous struggle. In a spiritual sense, John is talking about the journey each of us is making through life. The mountains and valleys are the barriers to Christ’s coming into our lives. The mountains and crooked roads are our sins and the limitations we place on ourselves. John is telling us to get our hearts ready, to prepare for God’s coming to dwell within us.
Most of us don’t remember our baptism, but at that moment, the priest who baptized us also anointed us as priest, prophet and king. Jesus himself was crowned priest, prophet and king, so we follow in his footsteps, we follow in his dignity as a child of God. Because we are prophets, we are called to speak God’s word to people without preaching or trying to compel them to think like us.
So how do we do that? We become prophets by the way we talk and the ways we act. When we have a challenging week and are tired, we can still say it’s been a great week because God is still in charge. When we suffer, even a little bit, consciously uniting our pain with the suffering of Jesus, somehow our pain makes more sense. While we wait for God to heal some aspect of our lives, usually an aspect where we crave the most control, by the way, while we wait for this healing, we trust in God’s goodness even while we are in darkness. Looking at the life and death of Jesus, we have come to trust that every challenge life brings us can be transformed into something positive and life-affirming—no matter how it sometimes seems to us.
We are also prophets by what we do. Mother Teresa left a comfortable convent with the Sisters of Loreto to live among the poor and care for them. At the beginning she had no place to live. After living on the street in tents and seeing terminally ill people turned away from hospitals because of their inability to pay, she began to look for her own place for them. She wandered through the streets of her city for days without success. At the end of each of those days her body ached and she felt like giving up. In the back of her mind, she always knew that if things got too bad, she could always return to Loreto and regain the comforts she longed for. In her book, she calls this time of homelessness the darkest night of her soul.
Keep in mind that she had no young women willing to join her yet; she was alone and it felt like she would not find a place for her ministry. When she approached people, even Catholic priests, they tended to treat her like she was crazy and they walked away. She was frequently hungry and had to beg for food for herself, and she learned firsthand how the destitute live every day. She decided that the only way she would be successful was if she simply trusted God and refused to surrender to self-pity.
Being a prophet comes with a cost to our comfort. We know this to be true. But God will not allow us to go without all the things we absolutely need. As prophets, we may find that we will find ourselves on the picket lines, or writing letters to government officials, or encouraging our friends to surrender more of themselves to God’s gentle guidance, or perhaps even something as simple as consuming fewer material resources so that others might simply live. And when we surrender to God’s grace, we cannot fail because our success will be in God’s hands, not our own. To begin, we must ask God for the grace to surrender completely to God, that the work begun in us in baptism might come to full power.
St. Paul writes, “…this is my prayer, that your love may increase more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception to help you to determine what is of value and what is worthless, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, filled with so much fruit of justice that comes through Jesus Christ that our very lives will give glory and praise to God.”
As we embark on this second week of Advent, we acknowledge that some of the baggage we are carrying has become too heavy for us. As much as we crave control over our own lives, we see that it isn’t working, it’s never really worked. We’re tired. We’re tired of being tired. But within us burns the fire of the Christ, a flame whose warmth will warm us, a light whose presence will illuminate the shadowy places within us, and will give us the courage to release and let go. Today is perhaps that day. Today is that day when we will finally let go of bitterness and resentment, when we will surrender our uncertainties and our fears. The Christmas we want, the one we have wanted our entire lives, is just around the corner. To get there, to get to that place of oneness with Emmanuel, to find that peace of heart and mind, we have to let something else slip away. We’ve been afraid of letting go, afraid that if we release our bitterness and anxiety, we will be simply empty. But that is the paradox, because until we find a way to empty ourselves of what limits us, of what holds us locked in this place unable to move forward, God is unable to enter in with all his glory and healing power. What are we willing to put aside this week as we prepare to receive Christ?