Reflection on the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent
Last week’s readings for the First Sunday of Advent began the Catholic liturgical year with a jarring warning to stay awake and be vigilant, for we know neither the day nor the hour of our Lord’s return. One may see in the tenor of those readings something oddly foreboding for the promise of Christmas that the season bears at its culmination. Could it be that the Scriptures urge us to prepare for the coming of Christ by means of a threat? That doesn’t seem to be very festive.
The First and Second Testaments are filled with the prophetic wisdom and admonitions to those bound to God in the covenant. The urgency of the message is always faithfulness and receptivity to God’s providential grace. If we are asleep, indifferent, or outright hostile to the gift of God’s friendship and communion, the prophets educate us on the dire consequences of such attitudes and actions. It is not a threat, but wake-up call to those who may be sleepy. As we draw nearer to the winter solstice with the busy-ness of holiday preparations, a wake-up call may be most needed, if not most welcome.
This week the prophets continue to cry out to us through the words of Second Isaiah and John the Baptist as recorded in Mark. Now that we are awake, our mission and our “to-do list” is given: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight His paths.” The tone of these prophecies is markedly different. There is urgency, but no anxiety; anticipation, but no apprehension. These prophecies carry a post-exilic exuberance that marks the dawn of a new era of relationship between God and God’s people. Our task is to greet him and make it easier for the Messiah to come to us, and easier for others to come and greet him as well.
What practical steps are we to take, then, to prepare the way of the Lord?
In the chapter immediately preceding today’s first reading, First Isaiah gives his closing words to King Hezekiah who foolishly put his faith in the might of men rather than God. He warns, “The time is coming when all that is in your house, everything that your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried off to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD” (Is 39:6). As Second Isaiah opens his preaching, the exile is at its end, the trial complete, yet the homes and storehouses of the people are empty. With what are we to prepare the way of the Lord? What can we offer?
Acknowledgement of our sins and acceptance of God’s forgiveness.
Isaiah’s words mark the guilt of Jerusalem and its attendant expiation. John the Baptist preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In the preparation of the great “highway” for the Lord—the filling of the valleys, the leveling of the mountains, the smoothing of the rugged land and the broadening of the valleys—it is not the industry of human beings who achieves these great feats, but the work of the One Who Comes and the One Who Sent Him. All we are asked to do is witness and give witness to these mighty deeds with confidence that the Lord will draw us to him as a shepherd gathers the lambs in his arms. That should not be a threat, but a great comfort.
As we wait with expectation for the coming of the Son of God, we are also called to reflect on the continuing presence of God within us in the gift of the Holy Spirit. With crèches full of Mary, Joseph, animals, angels, and shepherds awaiting the baby Jesus’ birth, it is easy to overlook that the Holy Spirit is there already. In the Annunciation of our Lord, it was by the Spirit that Mary conceived Jesus. In the baptism of John, it is the baptism of the Spirit that he prefigures. All is done in and through the dynamic of the Holy Spirit. It is the gift of God’s very self that gave us our Christ and it is the gift of God’s very self that was sent eternally and remains with us eternally. The Dominican theologian Yves Congar recognized the key role of the Holy Spirit writing that:
The Spirit, then, is the principle realizing the ‘Christian mystery’, which is the mystery of the Son of God who was made man and who enables us to be born as sons [and daughters] of God. Catholic theologians speak of ‘grace’. In so doing, they run the risk of objectivizing it and separating it from the activity of the Spirit, who is uncreated grace and from whom it cannot be separated. Only God is holy, and only he can make us holy, in and through his incarnate Son and in and through his Spirit. (Yves Congar, I Believe in the Holy Spirit, v.2, trans. Geoffrey Chapman, New York: Seabury Press, 1983 [68-9])
When we celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation and the salvation that God wrought in the ministry of the Son, we must always recognize and affirm a complete, perfect deed of our Triune God. Doing so helps us to continually see the sanctification of our world through the Spirit in vivid boldness. It is not enough, though, to remain aloof from the painstaking work of the Spirit. Congar notes that God is the source of all holiness and it is only in and through God that anything is holy, “[y]et our co-operation in this process of sanctification is required—it is possible for us to neglect the gift and make it in vain” (ibid). An awareness and appreciation of the Spirit will yield sacramental vision, where the goodness of Creation becomes a means for us to respond to God’s invitation to participate in the fulfillment of God’s Reign.
May the graceful work of God the Father, Son, and Spirit not be done in vain.