The Gospel for this Second Sunday echoes a refrain that screams Advent—“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!” (And if you prefer singing to screaming: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kuUl522_8jQ!) Today’s reading (Mark 1:1-8) goes on to describe the eclectic sense of style, eccentric palate, and extraordinary proclamation of Saint John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ and herald of the Messiah!
Though camel hair apparel and locust breath may not conform to the PR standards of John’s time or ours, John possessed a rare blend of remarkable conviction and profound humility. He courageously proclaimed the coming of the Saviour while at the same time confessing himself “unworthy to stoop down and untie the thong his sandals” (Mark 1:7). Jesus captured this juxtaposition strikingly when He said: “Among those born of woman there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11).
What are we to make of this perplexing figure, John the Baptist? What of his pitch to “Prepare the way of the Lord”?
We live in a culture of sordid self-promotion—elections, advertisements, the job market, they’ve all devolved into revolving around that terrible trio: me, myself, and I. The all-powerful Apple, the very company whose logo is the fruit by which original sin entered human history, is responsible for such egotistical products as the “iPod,” “iPhone,” and “iPad”! Soon enough some crafty competitor will begin marketing the “meRight,” “meBest,” and—most horrific of them all—the “meNoNeedGod”!
John the Baptist, in word and example, offers us a profoundly different path: the Christian life is not the way of self-promotion but of Saviour-proclamation! The ancient cry to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!” is just as relevant now as it was in first-century Palestine. Forerunners of Christ are as just as direly needed in our day as they were in John’s!
And who are the Johns of our day? We are the Johns of our day! How are we to prepare the Lord’s way? Shall we preach at street corners, sport camel hair, dine on honeylicious locust, and grow alarmingly unkempt facial hair? While certain male students on campus seem to have already mastered the facial hair bit, I don’t think the call of today’s Gospel requires any of these.
The first pathways we’re to prepare are the pathways of our hearts. How can we make the Lord’s paths straight in our world if they are not first straight in ourselves? When Mother Teresa was asked the first thing she would change about the Church, her response was simple: “You and I.”
This is the invitation of today’s Gospel, of John the Baptist, and of the entire season of Advent: “Prepare the way of the Lord”—and begin with ourselves. How are we to prepare the Lord’s way in a season of frenetic card writing, gift giving, well wishing, Santa hat donning, and eggnog chugging?
At the end of his inaugural homily as Bishop of Rome way back in April of 2005 (when most of us were still in elementary school), Pope Benedict XVI echoed these words across St. Peter’s Square to the young people of the world – to each one of us: “And so, today…I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return.”
When we allow our interactions to be touched by the light and life of Christ, we lose nothing of our own individuality or identity. Instead, these are fulfilled, uplifted, and given new meaning and depth. It is like light pouring through a stain glass window: the more radiant the light, the more beautiful the window! The more we allow ourselves to radiate the light of Christ, the more fully we shine and the more brilliant our beauty! This reveals the wisdom of John’s raison d’être: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Prayer, reflection, repentance, Scripture meditation, and the sacrament of reconciliation offer us tremendous tools of interiorly preparing the Lord’s way by which we make room for Christ and make straight His paths within us. But this straightening of paths doesn’t end with our interior fulfillment or personal spiritual growth, it spills over to our relationships with our friends and classmates, our celebrations with family and relatives, our encounters with perfect strangers, and even our approach to final exams! Making straight the path of the Lord in our lives allows us to become pathways of Christ, by which Jesus is able to enter our world as He did two thousand years ago on that silent, starry night in a makeshift manger in the simple town of Bethlehem.
How about starting each of your exams with a short prayer? While those around you are scrabbling to fill out their scantrons and launch headlong into feverish essay writing, why not sit a moment, offer your efforts to God, and say a simple prayer? It’s amazing the peace you can find by preparing the Lord’s way! Or keeping track of your friends exams and texting them the day of to let them know they’re in your prayers? How about infusing a little faith into your Christmas cards? When we allow Christ to enter through us as His pathways, we lose nothing of ourselves but become more fully who we’re meant to be. We become bearers of the greatest gift we can offer, the most precious present of any Christmas since the very first: Jesus Himself.
Preparing the Lord’s way takes at least as many forms as there are moments in our day. This Advent, will we dare to make our moments occasions of preparation for the One heralded by John the Baptist? Will we make our paths straight and make ready our hearts for the Babe born in Bethlehem? During this beautiful season and always, let us be pathways of Christ by which the Lord enters our world anew.
By Julian Paparella