Prepare the Way of the Lord
In this beautiful homily for 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year C, Father Hanly talks about John the Baptist, preparing the way of the Lord and the gift of God at Christmas.
Readings for Second Sunday of Advent, Year C
- First Reading: Baruch 5:1-9
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
- Second Reading: Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11
- Gospel: Luke 3:1-6
Today is the second Sunday of the four Sundays of Advent, and only two and a half weeks before Christmas comes, and today we hear the great Advent voice of John the Baptist.
You all know John the Baptist. He is the cousin of Jesus. He was born before Jesus, but knew Jesus as a child, for Mother Mary in the Visitation visited Elizabeth when she was pregnant with the child who was to become the precursor, the precursor of the Messiah.
And so now we have skipped from Christmas time to a much later date. In that time in history, it is about time for the Messiah to show himself to the whole world. In today’s gospel, however, we see John the Baptist.
John the Baptist grew up and, rather early in his life, he decided and declared himself for a monastic tradition, a tradition of holiness and asceticism that was quite common at that time, because there was a feeling in those days, at that particular time in history, that something great was coming and would come very soon.
And so he went out into the deserts around the Jordan River and he mingled with some of the communities.
The communities were charismatic communities, and they were longing and hoping for the coming of the Messiah, and he was to come very quickly and they were expecting him in their own life time.
And so it was that John the Baptist came out of the desert.
Why the desert?
The desert is the place where you form prophets, holy men of God, single-minded people, totally committed ascetics.
Because the desert is a vast wilderness and only the strong of spirit can even survive. And there’s no distraction.
And a man goes out into the desert and he is naked before the whole world. There is nothing there. Nothing. The food has to be rooted around for in the roots of very strong trees that dig their roots deep into the desert earth. And it is a very ascetic sort of life.
And another reason is there’s no distractions there. There’s nothing but you and God Himself.
And there he is honed and there he hears the word of God calling him to become the one who is going to announce the coming of the Messiah.
The Jewish people have been praying for over two thousand years and it is their great hope that God will send the one promised by Moses, the one spoken about by all the prophets, the Holy One of God, the Blessed One of God, the one that was to make Israel free and create a whole new world.
And so it was he came out dressed as Elijah the prophet had dressed many years before him, dressed in camel’s hair, existing on locusts and honey.
He came with a strong and simple message: “Get ready for the coming of the Lord. Make open your hearts to receive him.”
This is the way he preaches:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The short form of this is: “Hear my voice. It is time to turn your lives around.”
He came preaching. He came preaching the gospel of repentance. The word is “metanoia.” It means more than just repentance, turning around on your knees and being sorry for your sins. It means a change in your whole life, because the Messiah is about to appear.
And all the business about evening out the roads and straightening them, he is saying this is what we must do, it is our roads that are crooked, it is our places where we have created deep holes to hide in. We must attend to making that road clear and straight and direct from God’s heart into our own heart.
And, of course, that’s what we are supposed to do during Advent.
It is a time we reshuffle our lives to look at what is important and what is not important, to look at what is perhaps more of a distraction than more of a life, to turn, once again, to becoming the kind of people that Jesus has taught us to become, that God has desired us to become: people who are self sacrificing, those who reach out to their brothers and sisters.
This is the message of Advent.
And what John, when he finishes his preaching, what John will tell us, which is true, that if you prepare your hearts, you straighten the pathways, and make it an easy road and ride for God Himself to embrace your heart, then you will have found the Messiah.
The other thing that this preparation for Christmas calls upon us to do is to remember that Christmas is a gift that is primarily the gift of God.
It is the gift of God of His Only Begotten Son, a gift given to us and, in our turn, we are to give this gift, the gift that God has given us, to each other and to all the people in our area of life and prayer and care.
This is why Christmas is a time for gift giving and we imitate God Himself.
And I’d like to end this homily, which is a little bit less down to earth than many, with a story, a personal story of my father, because I always feel very, very close to the idea of the gift giving of Christmas, and the reason is that my father made our Christmases very important.
My father was a rich man’s son. He came from Ireland in 1928, right into the Depression, one of the worst depressions in American history. And for ten years the times were hard times and very difficult. And he himself had a wife and three children.
And, in such terrible times and difficult times, he had a simple job in an odd lot house on Wall Street that didn’t pay as much as he needed just to keep us in the things that we actually had to have. But he had great faith and trust in God.
And so our days were rather tough, my two sisters and I. At the same time, our parents protected us from any feeling that we were poor, or any feeling that we were needy, because they treated us like little kings and queens, and this was a great help.
But my father, he was a rich man’s son, and he remembered one thing: the wonders of Christmas. Christmas, to him, was the centre of his life as a boy growing up in Ireland. And, of course, coming from a rather rich home, his father could give him nothing but the best.
So, while our days were very simple and often very difficult, there was one day that topped all others, and we longed and looked forward to it. It was Christmas Day.
And on Christmas morning, we would jump out of our beds and run down the stairs and run into the living room.
And there would be the tree with all the lights on. And underneath the tree would be all kinds of lovely boxes, wrapped in different colours, all tied with red ribbon.
And there in the middle of them would be my father, with this really funny smile on his face, and his eyes full of anticipation.
And we’d sit down and, of course, in the boxes would be nothing but Christmas toys: things like dolls and puppets, games, and all the other paraphernalia that make children feel that Christmas has really come.
My mother, of course, would be on the side lines, and she would be hoping that in the boxes there would be underwear and galoshes and all these things that she needed.
But never, because my father felt there was no Christmas magic in galoshes or underwear. It had to be what he had: candy and all kinds of wonderful things to delight the children.
Many years later, I asked my uncle Fred, who was not my uncle but he was my father’s best friend and he became our uncle in every way, I said “Where did he get the money?” because those were very hard times.
And Uncle Fred smiled and said, “Didn’t you know? Your father never ate lunch for months, he’d save every penny. He gave up smoking, and he saved that.
“And then he would go out and he would toss it all away on buying all these lovely things, that you might be delighted and understand that the world was good and that God was good and that Christmas was a day that we learn how to give.”
And so it was that all through my life I’ve remembered my father.
Fifty years later, he was in a hospital in Dublin, and it was raining outside, and he died in my arms.
And then, afterwards, when we went to the funeral and we buried him, someone asked, “Did he leave an inheritance?”
And my only answer was: “He left no money, but he left an inheritance of love that would last for three generations.”
This is what I think I would like to share with you, because it points something out to me that is very vital for these Christmases: Christmas is for givers, not receivers.
It’s to give: to give your time, to give yourself, to give whatever you can, because God is a giver, and Jesus was a giver, giving his whole life for us.
And so I think my father up in heaven is looking down and just delighted that in the midst of Advent, and I am sure he will appear some day and he will appear with all the gifts and wonders of a child’s Christmas.
Because, for us, it is the understanding of Christmas that God is a giver, that Jesus is a giver, and when we learn to give to each other…
And what do we give?
We give ourselves, we give our hearts, we give our time, we give our efforts and, more than that, that gift is called love.
And that is the heart of Christmas: that God teaches us how to love through His Son; His Son teaches us how to love through each other; and, most of all, we teach each other how to love as Jesus loves, how to love as God loves.
And this is the changing of the world and this is the hope of the future.