Sunday, December 9, 2012

Prepare (in yourself) the way of the Lord

Each year on the Second Sunday of Advent we hear the words of the Baptist saying something like: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." In St. Luke's Gospel, from which we read this year, we also hear, "Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth."

It seems to me that there are two equally valid ways we can receive these words, plus one largely unhelpful way. The largely unhelpful way is to hear this as if the Baptist were only referring to Jesus appearing on the scene, which occurs before the end of the third chapter of Luke's Gospel, from whence our Gospel for today is taken. This is akin to observing Advent as if it is only a way to get ready to observe a historical commemoration, that of Jesus' birth in a manger in Bethlehem, something that quickly and easily turns into so much sentimentality.

As theologian and Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson insisted in his book Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel, it makes all the difference in the world whether you think of Jesus as merely a historical figure who lived long ago, or as our resurrected and living Lord, who died, rose again, ascended into heaven, sent His Holy Spirit to make manifest His Bride, the Church, and whose glorious return we joyfully await. It is obvious that the two cannot be mutually exclusive. You must believe the former to really believe the latter. The danger is believing the former without having experienced the latter for yourself.

The first valid way to hear the words of the Baptist points us towards the parousia, that is, Christ's glorious return. But, via our reading from St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians, this ultimate way of receiving the Baptist's words are linked to the second valid way, the immediate, or personal: "I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6).

Taking up the immediate, or personal, sense of the Baptist's words, ask yourself what valleys in my life need to be filled? What mountains and hills need to be made low? What winding roads require straightening and what rough ways need smoothing? Once you answer these questions, you will be clearer on what your needs are.

In his short book, A Praying Life: Connecting With God In a Distracting World, Paul Miller noted, "the point of Christianity isn't to learn a lot of truths so you don't need God anymore. We don't learn God in the abstract. We are drawn into his life." Being needy, recognizing that you need God's help, that is, His grace- that undeserved and unearnable loving assistance given you by God, through Christ, which is the power of the Holy Spirit- to complete the work begun in you once you received the gift of faith, a gift that God, I suppose, wants to give everyone, but a gift not everyone receives for a variety of reasons. This is why, as Jesus will teach later in St. Luke's Gospel, "Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more" (Luke 12:48).

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