Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
2nd Sunday of Advent, C
December 10, 2006
Bar 5:1-9; Phil 1:4-6,8-11; Lk 3:1-6
1) On the second Sunday of Advent each year, the Church leads us on pilgrimage to the Jordan River, so that we might enroll in the school of St. John the Baptist, hear his message and put it into action in our lives. At first glance, it seems like a strange choice to meet him at the Jordan, 30 years AFTER Christ’s birth. But the reason why the Church always visits John at the Jordan is because he was the one chosen by God the Father from all eternity to get his people ready to receive His Son, who was already walking toward the Jordan River to inaugurate his public ministry. Advent literally means “coming toward,” and in it we ourselves are called to prepare for God’s coming toward us — in the past, 2000 years ago in Bethlehem; in the future, with power and great glory on the clouds of heaven; and in the present, in his Word, in the Eucharist, and in grace. The preparatory itinerary announced by John is the way we’re called to get ourselves ready to receive the Lord who is coming. What is that itinerary?
2) When we meet him at the Jordan, John blares, “I am the voice of One crying out in the desert.” He didn’t say, “I am one crying out in the desert,” but rather, “I am the VOICE of one crying out in the desert.” John is the voice, the loudspeaker; who is the “one crying out?” It’s the WORD. It is Christ himself. John’s message is the message of God, which John was screaming at the top of his powerful lungs. What was this message? “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.”
3) The message begins with the phrase, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” In the ancient world, the roads were a mess. Every time there was a battle, the roads would be attacked and bridges destroyed, to try to stop the advance of the enemy. The weather took its toll as well, leading to all types of serious potholes and other obstacles. Any time a dignitary would be coming, they would have either to fix the roads or build new ones so that the caravan accompanying him could arrive without delay and without hassle. John the Baptist is telling us that to get ready for the Lord who is coming this Advent, we, too, need to prepare a way for him. We, too, need to make straight the paths. In the ancient world, preparing such a path meant a great deal of manual work, making crooked paths straight, rough ways smooth, and even charting paths through the mountains and valleys. For us, that pathway will not be traced on the ground, but in of our hearts. It will not be made in the desert, but in our life. The work is not something that will make our hands dirty, but our souls clean. What John the Baptist is calling us to is CONVERSION.
4) To preach conversion is the mission of the Baptist, which is why we encounter him every Advent. Before he was even conceived, the Archangel Gabriel said to Zechariah, his Father, “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will go before the Lord, to turn … the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk 1:16-17). At his birth, Zechariah exclaimed, “You, my child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins” (Lk 1:76-77). Today’s Gospel says that John was at the Jordan, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins.” And his first words at the Jordan, St. Matthew tells us, were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John the Baptist was the voice of the Lord crying out in the wilderness for “repentance” through the forgiveness of our sins. He’s proclaiming that message to us live today.
5) The Lord is coming for us in Advent, but for him to reach his destination, we have to convert. “To make straight the paths of the Lord” means to clear the path of sin, which is the obstacle for the Lord to come into our lives. Isaiah and John speak of valleys, mountains, uneven ground and rough places. We need to call them by their proper names: pride, sloth, lust, violence, dishonesty, hypocrisy, selfishness, superficiality, sensuality, hatred, drunkenness and addiction and more. We have to make low the mountains of our pride and egocentrism. We have to fill in the valleys that come from a shallow prayer life and a minimalistic way of living our faith. We have to straighten out whatever crooked paths we’ve been walking: if we’ve been involved in some secret sins or in a sinful relationship, the Lord calls us through John the Baptist to end it; if we’ve been involved in some dishonest practices at work or at home, we’re called to straighten them out and do restitution; if we’ve been harboring grudges or hatred, or failing to reconcile with others, now’s the time to clear away all the debris; and if we’ve been pushing God off the side of the road, if we’ve been saying to Him that we don’t really have the time for him, now’s the time to get our priorities straight. This Advent — which is a gift of the Lord to us, and (who knows?) may be our last — will SUCCEED OR FAIL on the basis of how well we convert and clear our lives of sin so that the Lord may come to us.
6) There’s a reason why John the Baptist preached at the Jordan River. It was more than just a source of water where he could baptize. The Jordan river was the place that represented the border between the Jews’ slavery in Egypt — their wandering aimlessly in the desert for 38 years — and the Promised Land. By preaching his message there, John was inviting the Jews of his day, to come out of the bondage of slavery, to leave their faults and wandering, sinful lives behind, and enter into the promised land, enter into God’s territory. John preaches the same thing to us. He points us to a new exodus and states very clearly that the path from the desert into the new promised land IS CONVERSION.
7) The presence of John at the Jordan reminds us of that passover from death to life, from sin to sanctity, which is meant to occur in each of us this Advent. But it also reminds us of something else. The exodus of the Israelites from Egypt was not the work of the Israelites alone or even principally. It was the work of God who freed his people from Pharoah, from slavery. God’s active role is likewise present in the conversion that God wants from us during Advent. He wants to set us free and help us. In the first reading from the prophet Baruch, we read: “For God has commanded that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” God himself wants to prepare the path so that we may we may walk safely toward the God-man who is coming toward us. He’s going to give us the help to remove whatever obstacles, whatever sins, are in the way.
8 ) How does he do this? The first way is by giving us the grace we need to realize that we’re sinners in need of His Mercy, in need of conversion. If we don’t recognize we’re sinners, then we’re saying that we don’t really need a savior. Jesus didn’t come 2000 years ago in Bethlehem so that we could have a winter feast in which we can wish everybody happy holidays and pass around gifts. He came and died to save us from ourselves, to save us from our sins. Over the course of this homily, the Lord has been extending to each of you the grace of recognizing you need to be saved from sin. The second way God helps us make straight the paths is by making available to us the means of his forgiveness in the Sacrament of Confession. The saints have called this a “second baptism,” in which we’re brought back to the Jordan and cleansed interiorly like on the day of our Christening. This Advent, here at St. Anthony’s, Father Blyskosz and I will be hearing confessions for at least 15 hours each, and we’d be happy to add more if more are needed. In this sacrament, the Lord wants to heal you and help you repair the damage caused by sin to the path between you and Him. Please take him up on his offer. The last way the Lord helps us is by the gift of the Advent Liturgies, in the reading of the Word, in the Prayers, in the reception of the Eucharist; these are ways to go out each day, several times a day, to meet the Lord on that path. The more we use the path going out to meet him, the safer and more trodden will be the path for him to come to us.
9) Conversion is a choice, to turn away from sin and to embrace the Savior. In today’s Gospel there’s a huge contrast between those who chose poorly and those who chose well. The Gospel lists seven political and religious figures — Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, his brother Philip, Lysanius, Annas and Caiphas — who were all around three years later when Jesus was crucified. At least five of them were complicit in the Jesus’ murder. On the other side stands one — John the Baptist. Of those named, he was the sole one who chose Christ. He chose him throughout his life. Before he preached the Gospel of repentance to others, he himself went out into the desert, where he fasted on locust and wild honey and lived a life of great penance. In today’s terms, before he preached, he practiced what he preached. The Lord is calling us to do the same. At this Mass, John shouts out again to us, as he did to his listeners at the Jordan, one of the most famous sentences of all time: “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” That Lamb of God is COMING TOWARD us, to take away our sins. May we take advantage of his help to make straight the paths for his arrival, so that as John promised at the end of the Gospel, we might “see the salvation of God” and cross with the Lord and his precursor from the slavery of sin into the glories of the eternal promised land.