When there is a messiness around us it is hard to know just where to begin the cleaning. Beginnings are not easy all the time. How to begin a speech or important paper, how to begin a conversation with the passenger seated next to you on a plane or bus, how to begin preparing for Christmas, how to begin praying, are all such human struggles.
Advent is a beginning of the liturgical year and the beginning of our learning about this person of Jesus. The feast tomorrow of the Immaculate Conception is the dramatic and unusual continuation of the divine beginning. Grace is always taking new places within us and so our little lives are seemingly always beginning. We had Advent last year and the year before and we are not sure that did any good.
We prepare to celebrate this Second Sunday of Advent by allowing grace into the mess, into the wonderings of how to enter into the always-conversation which God began by being seated next to us on this flight of life. We have to make room, not easy. God desires gracefully to sit right down in the mess and bless us by our getting to know the Word of God spoken once and for all. This week as we prepare for the liturgy, could we pause at the most messiness-time, and listen to hear if we are really alone in it.
We hear a familiar passage from the prophet Isaiah in our First Reading. This begins a sixteen-chapter section of this book, known as The Book of Consolation. Israel has been exiled in Babylon for a long time, because of their sin. It opens with a poetic calling from God to the prophet. The entire book of Consolation is a preparation of the people, through the words of the prophet, to be ready for the return trip home.
The prophet receives his call and his duties or mission. He is to speak tenderly to the inhabitants of Jerusalem that their time of punishment is soon to be over. We can read this whole section as a “new exodus”. They will be forgiven as God passes beyond the remembering of their guilt and shame. They will pass beyond the mountains which will be leveled and the valleys which will be filled-in. They are to be readied to go beyond what they fear from God and beyond what they remember of their pasts.
There is a quieting pastoral image at the end of the reading presenting God as the shepherd who will lead the flock back carrying them armfully.
This is a prophecy of hope. They hear it all as the word of God,
but as they listen, they are still in bondage; nothing has changed,
except that this is all from God Whom they failed to trust in their
pasts. They are beginning to learn all over again, beginning with
the Great Exodus by which they entered their identity as God’s
people. They hope it is all going to come true and as long as the
prophet sings his songs, they will grow in trust until they return,
and they do.
In today’s Gospel, which is composed of the opening verses of Mark’s account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the surprise is taken away. The play-goer might ask, “What is this play actually all about?” The very first line of Mark’s Gospel tells the reader, that this whole Gospel is about Jesus the Christ or messiah, who is the Son of God. It is as if Mark comes out on the stage and clarifies and highlights that Jesus is the main character and He is the Son of God and if you watch the whole play, (read the Gospel) you will come to the knowledge and acceptance of these beliefs.
We are beginning then in these early days of the new liturgical year to be open to the on-coming of Jesus.
We can hear the words as addressed to us that we should “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths.” We know these words from the First Reading. Here’s the reversal. We can think that Advent is the time for us to shape up, straighten up, and get rid of our ways to make a place for Jesus. That is very nice, but not exactly what is meant. The prophet Isaiah images God as predicting that God will do this for the people. God will straighten and level the way for the people’s return.
We can picture John the Baptist’s shouting at the people that they should clean up their acts. This does not sound anything like “Speak tenderly” from the prophet. The people have come for cleansing according to their Jewish tradition. John calls to them about something new. We know, because Mark has told us, exactly what’s so new. The New is the awaited-for Messiah and He will cleanse, (baptize) with water, but with a gift, the Holy Spirit who will tenderly, gently, straighten and level. The “gospel” is the “Good News” that the Son of God and the Holy Spirit of God has embraced our human condition. We do not, all by ourselves, have to clean up our acts so that God will free us and tenderly bring us back.
Advent is not the waiting for Christmas, nor the celebration of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, but the time we give to letting Jesus come closer and closer to us and our unstraightened and roughness. The closer we allow His birth in us, the straighter and smoother our ways become. It is all very good news.
“Rise up Jerusalem, stand on the heights, and see the joy that is coming to you from God.” Bar. 5.5
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