Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
The Word of God speaks to John—as it had spoken to Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah—calling him out of his desert exile to preach the advent of Jerusalem's salvation, the imminent arrival of the Messiah. John, both a prophet and a herald, travels the whole region of the Jordan, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Our gospel writer, Luke, quotes the prophet Isaiah, “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'” This is the charge given to John: ready the nation, prepare God's people; straighten their minds; soothe their defeats; temper their victories; and smooth the rough roads of their stony hearts to receive the consummation of all prophecy by baptizing with water all those who repent of their disobedience, so that their sins may be forgiven. Are you ready? Is your heart and mind straightened and smoothed? Have you prepared yourself for the coming of the Christ?
You all know that Advent is meant to prepare us for the coming of the Christ Child. This is that time of the liturgical year when we read and hear all about the preaching ministry of John the Baptist. What you might not know is why Luke quotes Isaiah's ancient prophecy and connects it with John's contemporary ministry of baptism? In other words, why—in the middle of telling us about the start of John's mission—does Luke bring in Isaiah's description of the Jews' return from their Babylonian exile? The two events don't seem to have much in common. Historically speaking, they don't; however, prophetically speaking, the two are directly connected. In the 15 yrs. btw 597-582 BC, some 18,000 Jews were deported from Jerusalem to Babylon by King Nebuchadnezzar. In 538 BC, the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, defeated Babylon and gave the Jews permission to return to their homeland, the kingdom of Judea. Isaiah's prophecy, quoted by Luke, is part of a much larger prophecy called the Book of Consolation (Isa 40-55). This is Isaiah's description of his people's homecoming procession, their triumphant parade back to the land promised to them by God. Who leads this procession? God Himself. So, He makes the path home straight, smooth; filling the valleys and leveling the hills. After 60 yrs of hardship in exile, the Lord brings His people home in style! John's mission is to bring God's people to Christ, to make our way to salvation a smooth, non-stop flight to the heavenly Jerusalem.
Earlier, I asked you if you were ready for the coming of the Christ. Are you prepared to receive him? Writing to the Philippians, Paul prays, “. . .that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness.” Paul is praying that the Christians in Philippi will continue to grow in that kind of love that brings them closer and closer to knowing intimately God's will for them, so that they will be able to distinguish good from evil, and remain wholly innocent until Christ's return. How do the Philippians remain in God's will until the Last Day? They work to produce “the fruits of righteousness,” that is, they bring about, make manifest words and deeds that demonstrate their right relationship with God. It's not enough for them to think good thoughts about Jesus. They are exhorted to produce outwardly, publicly evidence of their spiritual excellence by imitating Christ in the world. And these superior words and works will be spoken and done “for the glory and praise of God” and for no other reason. Paul writes, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it. . .”
God has begun a good work in you, in all of us, and He intends to complete it. But His good work in each one of us cannot be completed unless we do our share of the heavy-lifting. He will not save us without our help. Over and over again, His people, Israel and Judea, committed adultery with the neighboring gods, sacrificing their righteousness on the foreign altars of oppression and injustice. By falling to their knees before idols, they fell in their holy duties to protect the innocent, the widowed, the orphaned, and the stranger. By worshiping things of their own making, they degraded themselves as things and sought to lift themselves up by pushing down those already pushed out by poverty, disease, and ignorance. Our Lord began a good work in His covenant with Abraham, but Abraham's children failed again and again to take up that good work and work with God's grace to make themselves into a blessed nation. For these failures, God allowed them to be defeated, exiled, and lost among the pagans. Some few remained faithful, and these He brought home. Because they worked with the good work He started in them, these few He returned to their promised land.
God has begun a good work in you, in all of us, and He intends to complete it. So, how can we use this Advent to prepare for His good work to be completed? First, what good work He has started? For the whole Church, this good work is the work of being Christ in flesh and bone for the world. In other words, the Body of Christ must be the BODY of Christ—the hands, feet, eyes, ears of the Lord, speaking the Word, doing his will among the peoples and nations. For each one of us, this good work is defined by our individual gifts used in the service of the Body. What gifts has God given you? Has He given you a talent? Use it for the gospel. Has He given you time? Spend it on the gospel. Has He given you treasure? Invest it in the gospel. Next, we need to discern what it is that stands in the way of our good work. For Israel and Judea, it was their adultery with neighboring gods. They learned that we all become what we love most. So, what do you love among the idols of our perverse consumerist culture? Violence, death, promiscuity, the financial bottom-line; self-gratification before selfless service; untamed passions; or, do you claim to be a god yourself? In your pride, do you long to become a god w/o God and worship your own ego and id? God will allow it. He will also allow the consequences of our idolatry.
Are you ready? Are you helping John the Baptist in straightening out your heart and smoothing down your mind? Christ comes to complete in you the good work his Father started. Are you listening to his herald and answering his cry for repentance? Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, they all warned God's people that their disobedience, their spiritual adultery would lead them into the wilderness of exile and defeat. And so it did. God brought them back to their promised land after two generations of living among their enemies, after more than 60 yrs. of purification and penance. Christ's Body, the Church—you, me, all of us together—must be the voice crying out in the desert, calling the world to repentance, calling it away from the edge of self-destruction. But our call is hollow and weak if we ourselves teeter on that same edge. A prophet must prophesy to himself first, and so the Church must preach to herself first. The Advent of the Christ Child is our time to get right with God, to get ourselves realigned with His perfect will, to be filled again with the love that created and re-created us in Christ. Look forward to his birth at Christmas, but look inward as well, look inward toward his birth in you, and love that child like he is your own, then, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God!”_____________
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