Today’s Advent readings are full of hope, with the promise of joyful change and new beginnings. The first reading and the Psalm speak of the Lord restoring Jerusalem, and of the joyful return of the Chosen People, who are called to prepare the land and to put on festive garments. In the second reading, St. Paul prays with joy that the Philippians will continue to grow in love as the Lord continues the good work he has begun in them. And the Gospel presents us with a turning point in history as John the Baptist begins his ministry.
All these changes and beginnings come from God. The prophet Baruch speaks to the people who have been exiled to Babylon because of their unfaithfulness. The Lord removed them in order to teach them to trust only him, and now they are returning to him, and to their mother Jerusalem. The changing of their garments indicates the change in their spiritual condition. In exile they have been wearing somber and penitential clothes. Now the Lord tells them to signify their joyful return: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God.” Since the human person is both body and soul, it is fitting that the Israelites express in physical ways the spiritual joy they feel as they return to Jerusalem. Rather than lying low, and “being led away on foot,” as when they were exiled, the Lord commands, “Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights.” Their posture is a demonstration of their attitude of joy.
In the second reading, Paul tells the Philippians of his prayer for them. The purpose of his prayer, the goal, is that when they meet God at the end of their lives, they will be “pure and blameless.” In order to reach that goal, Paul prays that “the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” What a message of hope! The Apostle who taught them about Jesus is saying that it was the Lord who “began a good work” in them. This passage is encouraging to us, too, because we know that the Lord has begun a good work in us, too. The beginning of that good work was when he gave us the gift of life at our conception. He has also given us a new beginning, a whole new life, in the Sacrament of Baptism.
When we are tempted to despair of the value of any of our efforts, we are reminded to look at our lives for the certain evidence that there is a “good work” that the Lord has begun in us! Sometimes it is so subtle that we need to do a thoughtful examination of conscience. At times, we will not recognize a new direction in our spiritual lives until a brother or sister in Christ points it out and offers thanksgiving for the work of the Spirit through us. When we are reassured that Jesus is truly present in our lives and that he is using us as part of his plan for salvation, we can confidently step forward to do the next right thing for that day. We, too, can proclaim, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.”
The Spiritual Reflection at the beginning of this week helps us understand today’s Gospel. Pope Benedict writes about the importance of the historical context that St. Luke, unlike the other evangelists, gives to St. John the Baptist and the beginning of his ministry. We read that in a specific time and place, the word of God came to John. At the time, John was “in the desert.” Deserts are harsh and lonely places, not the normal hangout for a young man. Why was he there? To be with God and to prepare for his mission. Sometimes we ourselves voluntarily go “into the desert.” We may go on a silent retreat, or fast for a time from comforts or distractions. The goal for us is to be able to listen for the still, small voice of God. Given that John had a sense of his mission even from the womb, we can be sure that he entered the desert with a sense of purpose, eager to know and follow the will of God.
This is an example for us of the importance of one aspect of Advent. Although not as penitential as Lent, Advent is a time for the practice of some voluntary mortifications for the purpose of preparing for the Lord. In John’s case, his readiness to receive the word is evident. There is not even a break in the narrative. In the very next sentence we read that when the word of God came to him, “John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He had prepared his heart to hear his “marching orders,” and when he did, he went right to work. The Lord had “begun a good work in him” while he was still in Elizabeth’s womb, and John was open to allowing the Lord to “continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
During this Advent season, the Church encourages us to go into the desert, listen for the word of God, discern the good work he has begun in us, and “continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus!”
Am I aware of the good work the Lord has begun in me? How can I listen in silence for the word of God? Am I willing to enter into a desert experience?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 15, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.