SMC 9th December 2018
S John the Baptist is, in a way the patron of this holy season of Advent, in which we prepare for the second coming of Christ at the end of time, just as he prepared for the first coming of Christ in the flesh. So he is called the Præcursor, the one who runs before, preparing the way for Christ, as a servant might go ahead of a great king to make certain that all was ready for his arrival. How appropriate, then, that he quotes the words of the prophet Isaiah: “A voice cries in the wilderness: prepare a way for the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3).
This is, of course, a prophecy about him, the Baptist’s mission to proclaim the coming of Lord. But it’s wider than that: Isaiah’s words are meant for all of us, in every age, from the coming of Christ in the flesh to His coming again with fire on what S Paul calls in our Epistle “The Day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:10). The words of this prophet, spoken perhaps seven hundred years earlier, remind us that the Lord has long been watching over his people. The whole history of Israel, in fact, from the first great promise to Abraham, is the history of God’s love and care for His chosen people.
But S John Baptist is not, therefore, just another in the long line of Hebrew prophets proclaiming the love of the Lord for His people. He is the last. He is the last of the prophets before the coming of the One Who is prophet, priest and king, Jesus Christ the Lord.
After Christ had come, the world was changed. A voice has cried in the wilderness: the Voice of John, as Isaiah promised. A Virgin has conceived, and borne a Son, Emmanuel, God-with-us, as Isaiah promised. And it doesn’t stop there, because the fulfilment of these promises allows us, no, forces us, to hope in the fulfilment of all the prophecies.
And so we look forward to the day when, as John quotes Isaiah saying, “All mankind shall see the salvation of God.” We look forward to the fulfilment of the prophecy of Baruch, which we heard this morning: “Arise, Jerusalem, stand on the heights and turn your eyes to the east: see your sons reassembled from west to east at the command of the Holy One, jubilant that God has remembered them” (Baruch 5:5).
We know that this will happen at the end of time, on the Day of Christ Jesus, when, as Matthew writes, “the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done” (Matthew 16:27). We can and must look forward with hope for that Day, a Day, yes, of wrath and judgment, but also the day on which we will see, for the first time in the flesh, the whole Church of Jesus Christ gathered together, all those, as S John the Evangelist saw in the Apocalypse, “who had His Name and His Father’s Name written on their foreheads” (Revelation 14:1), when we shall see God “face to face,” as S Paul writes to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13:12), as the Psalmist hopes (Ps 41:3(42:3)).
But here and now, where we see in a glass, darkly, as S Paul puts it, we are but preparing for that great vision of glory, and for the enjoyment of God for ever. Advent, so packed with readings from the prophets, reminds us not just that the prophecies about Christ are fulfilled, but also that the prophecies about the Kingdom of Heaven are, yes, being fulfilled in our time. We are the witnesses to the mighty working of the Hand of God.
So we live in a strange time, a time both of fulfilment and expectation. S John often record Jesus as saying “the hour is coming, and is now here,” (e.g. John 4:23); and that’s what it is like for us, always, as it were, craning our necks and straining our eyes to catch glimpses of God’s Kingdom unfolding itself in our lives, through our prayers, as Holy Church continues to offer the one acceptable sacrifice, day by day until the world ends.
We might think that Isaiah’s words, which S John Baptist quotes, about paths being made straight and rough roads smoothed, belong to that future time, when the Lord will remake the earth as the Apocalypse of S John records. And of course, it does. But S Cyril, one of the Church Fathers, suggests another, and quite different, reading. S Cyril tells us that in one sense, God has already filled in the valleys and brought low the hills which stand in our path to Him, by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to become Man and to die for us upon the Cross, thereby opening for us the Way to everlasting life.
This might surprise us, this idea that the way to God is plain and easy, because, after all, we know that our lives are so often anything but easy, and the path we tread far from plain. What we do not see, when all around seems dark and the way rocky and troubled, is the great mercy of God, His grace, going before us, preparing our way to Him.
We talk so much in Advent about our preparations: the worldly talk about ‘getting ready for Christmas’, by which they mean wasting vast amounts of money on worthless knick-knacks and storing up food and drink so that they can offend the Lord with their gluttony once the Holy Feast arrives, Jesus Christ forgotten amidst the wrapping paper.
We Christians talk, and rightly, of our preparations for Christmas: of prayer and penitence, of fasting and the giving of alms (though, of course, as with Lent, we should never talk too loudly about these things, lest by boasting we lose the benefit of them!). But we forget, I think, that the greatest work of Preparation is performed, not by us, by God. By God, Who has already made the Way to Him straight, as S Cyril says.
How has He done this? Who will solve this puzzle for us? S John, in the fourteenth chapter of his Gospel, just before the arrest of Jesus and His Saving death, records S Thomas asking in puzzlement: “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). How familiar his bewilderment is to us who must make our way through this troublous life in this broken world!
Jesus’ answer provides the key to our difficulties. “I am the Way,” He says, “and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). In Christ’s very person, God has prepared a way for us to come to Him, even as S John the Baptist calls us to prepare a way for Him to come to us. Jesus Christ Himself is our Way, our path to the Kingdom.
And this path is plain, as Isaiah promised; all this is ours, brothers and sisters, ours for the asking. But God will not do all the work without our cooperation. His will is that we too should work at our salvation, in fear and trembling before Him. By ourselves, of course, we can do nothing at all, but God has given us the help of the Sacraments, promises of grace to strengthen us, that our way to Him may be smooth.
By our holy baptisms, the mountains of sin which were are cursed inheritance from our first parents, Adam and Eve, are removed forever. In our confirmations, the Holy Spirit is given us to fill the valleys of our worthlessness with holy gifts, with works of grace, with merits from the boundless store of Christ’s life and death.
By holy confession, God will root out from our lives the rocks and stones which we have placed as obstacles in our path. When did you last make your confession to a priest? Too long, perhaps. This Advent is the time to restart the habit of going to confession, and going often, to uproot the stubborn weeds that line our way through life, to straighten the paths made crooked by sin.
Above all, in the Holy Mass, God gives to us His Son, Jesus Christ the Righteous, in the flesh and blood which He took from the Immaculate womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary; the same flesh and blood which was broken and poured out for us on the Cross. In the Mass most clearly, in that holiest of sacraments, we see the Way to the Father before us, for the Way is Christ. This Advent is the time to renew your love of the holy Mass. This is your time to see whether you can come to Mass more often, pray at Mass more worthily, love the Lord in His Holy Sacrament more deeply.
Find the time to come before His Holy Tabernacle, where He is present constantly, in this church and every catholic church in the world, so that we might pray to Him in His Presence, and hear what He has to say to our hearts. As we celebrate Benediction at the Good Shepherd this Advent, after evening prayer at half past four, we are reminded that the Child Whose Birth we are preparing to celebrate at Christmas is with us still, veiled under the appearance of bread, and we receive the immense gift of adoring Him present, and receiving from Him a mighty blessing. If adoring the Lord in His Holy Sacrament isn’t yet a part of your regular life of prayer, then Advent is the time to make it one!
And with the help of these, and all the sacraments, brothers and sisters, we will find, as Isaiah foretold, and as S John the Baptist reminds us, that the Lord has indeed made the rough roads smooth, and made straight the paths that lead to Him. Amen.