When we began the new liturgical year last Sunday, the clear emphasis of the readings was the urgency of our being prepared for the coming of the Lord. Thus we recognized from the beginning that Advent is a season of preparation. Today’s readings help us understand what sort of preparation we should be making. There is no mention of the exterior preparations that often preoccupy us at this time of year – shopping, decorating, planning for parties and visits to our families. Rather, the readings move us to focus on our interior life.
In the gospel we meet, for the first time this Advent, the great prophet John the Baptist. According to the evangelist Luke, John’s mission began at a precisely identified moment in human history. Luke identifies all the key political and religious figures in power at the time. However, God did not entrust the vital message of this moment to any of these prominent and powerful men. Instead, he called forth a humble man living in poverty and obscurity in the wilderness. From this time on, John began to proclaim everywhere “a baptism of repentance which led to the forgiveness of sins.” This immediately shows us one of the essential elements of being ready for the coming of the Lord: overcoming the problem of sin.
Sin and God cannot both reign in us, for sin is opposition to the will of God. As St. Paul asks, “What partnership do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14). The incompatibility of the Kingdom of God with the presence of sin is one of the lessons we will learn from the beautiful feast that we celebrate later this week, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. Mary was preserved from all stain of sin because God was intent on establishing a new creation, free from sin. Now John the Baptist, who leapt for joy in the womb when he sensed that this new creation was at hand, dedicates himself to preparing for its arrival. He calls us all to change the direction of our hearts – from opposing God to welcoming him – through sincere repentance and asking God for his forgiveness.
John does not stress exterior change but interior change. The images the scriptures use to describe this change, however, are dramatic alterations in the physical environment: the work of filling in valleys and leveling every lofty mountain. We find this imagery today both in Luke’s quotation from the prophet Isaiah (Is 40:3-5) and in the beautiful prophetic vision from the book of Baruch. As we ponder these prophecies, we can apply the images to ourselves.
The mountains and hills represent interior obstacles to our readiness for the Lord. In our spiritual life, we often encounter such obstacles. We are usually most conscious of them when we have fallen once again into a sin pattern. They stand out in our minds as we prepare to make a good confession. There are some sins that we seem to have no power to change or resist, such as our bad habits, our pride, quick temper, resentment, or compulsive behavior. When we see our stubborn sins looming before us, we might say, “This is a mountain! I can’t get over it, I can’t get around it, and I can’t move it – now what do I do?”
The valleys in our spiritual journey are at first less obvious, but they are just as impassable. When we examine ourselves, we find that our lives are missing some basic elements, the absence of which seems to permanently prevent any further progress. Our impatience, for example, or ingratitude, our lack of courage, and especially the poverty of our love – these are like deep canyons and ravines that we simply cannot get over.
Who is responsible for leveling these obstacles? Is it our work or the Lord’s? As soon as we ask this, we realize that, if it is up to us, the task is impossible. But Advent reminds us not to waste any time in discouragement. We turn to the Lord and beg him for help. By turning to him in prayer, we open ourselves for his power to work in us. Since God is more intent on coming to us than we are on welcoming him, he will certainly overcome every obstacle to save us, even where there seems to us to be no way. He has begun the work of saving us, and he will finish what he has begun – if we cooperate. In today’s second reading, St. Paul expresses his confidence in the Lord’s saving power: “I am sure of this much: that he who has begun the good work in you will carry it through to completion, right up to the day of Christ Jesus.”
When we pray with faith, the “mountains and valleys” of our sins and weaknesses are actually no obstacle at all. It takes only a little faith to submit them to the power of God. Jesus assures us that we can move mountains after all: “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Mt 17:20).
As we prepare for the coming of the Lord, we can have confidence that he is also preparing us. His great power at work in us is what will help us have “a clear conscience and blameless conduct” so that we may “learn to value the things that really matter.” The Lord is preparing us for the very day of his coming, so that we will “be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in us, to the glory and praise of God.”
Am I aware of my own deep need for restoration? What are the “mountains and valleys” in my relationship with God? To what degree am I willing to be purified by the Lord? What blocks me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 12, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.