Freeman Cebu Lifestyle

Prepare the way of the Lord

GUIDING LIGHT - Rev. Fr. Benjamin Sim, Sj - The Freeman

The main message of Advent is: “Prepare.”  We’re already caught up in preparations – for Christmas with daily reminders of the number of shopping days before Christmas.   Nowadays it seems that the first day of September marks the beginning of the Christmas season with all kinds of sales and “Midnight Madness!” What a contrast to the call to “prepare”, which we hear in the Gospel today! 

John the Baptist, who would probably be considered some kind of a weirdo in our day, comes upon the scene with urgent words from Isaiah’s prophecy:  “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Advent, one of the most wonderful seasons of the Church year, is almost overshadowed by our preparations for Christmas. Instead of four weeks marked by a mood of spiritual renewal as Christians prepare themselves for the celebration of God’s amazing gift of Jesus, Advent gets lost in the Christmas rush. “Prepare” is the main message for these days, but the Scripture’s meaning and emphasis stands in sharp contrast with our frantic, stress-filled preparations during these weeks before Christmas.

The Church’s call to celebrate Advent properly seems like “a voice crying out in the wilderness,” in the words of Isaiah in today’s Gospel.

Christmas celebration seems to start earlier and earlier each year.  Christmas carols are heard throughout September, October, November and December. Christmas caroling and parties in schools and offices, as well as churches, take place every day. 

By the time December 25 comes, people are worn out by the Christmas celebrations.   The historic “Twelve Days of Christmas” only begins on December 25, yet you can hardly bear hearing another Christmas carol by that time. No wonder Advent seems lost in the rush of Christmas celebrations. 

There are practical reasons why this is so. Although it is liturgically correct to delay singing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve, you can’t really plan many Christmas activities between December 25 and Epiphany in early January.  Schools are closed, as are most offices during the week between Christmas and New Year. People are on vacation, visiting families, relatives, and friends, or simply out of town, or staying home totally exhausted.

So, what to do with Advent? It is too important a season to ignore. Yet, it is too difficult to observe it properly. Many parishioners complain if the singing of Christmas hymns and carols in church is delayed until December 24.  Many parish priests feel the tension between the proper liturgical celebration of Advent and the pressure to celebrate Christmas throughout December.

The parish, which is strict about keeping the mood of Advent seems to be out of step with the rest of the world. So, how do we keep a proper celebration of Advent with its message of “Prepare the way of the Lord?”

Appearing today at the center of the Advent stage is John the Baptist,  that strange figure, who came out of the desert  to announce the coming of the Messiah and to call on all of us to prepare for the King. Of course, John did his work when he and his cousin Jesus were about 30 years old, just before Jesus began his three-year public ministry. 

The time is wrong in terms of the happening, but the Scripture is right on target here. The time to celebrate John the Baptist’s important message is during these weeks of Advent, as we look forward to celebrate Jesus’ birth.

The Gospel writers believed that John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament about God’s messenger, who would announce the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, the Savior.

So John’s appearance in today’s reading is linked with a prophecy from the Old Testament:  “As it is written in the book of the prophet Isaiah:  ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness:  Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his path straight.  Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

When Isaiah wrote these words, there were engineer soldiers called “sappers,” who would go ahead of a travelling king to smooth out the road for the king’s chariot. Sappers levelled hills, filled in ditches and removed all obstacles in the king’s way.

This approach continues in our day. The visit of a dignitary or a head of state or the pope ensures that a city is cleaned and decorated to look its best.  Roads are repaired, buildings are repainted, slums are walled in from sight, and beggars are rounded up from the streets, adequate security is ensured. Like the ancient “sappers,” who removed obstacles in the pathway of the king, we are called to get rid of all obstacles to our welcoming the Lord God into our lives. What does this preparation of “repentance” mean for us today?

John the Baptist preaches a fiery message of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.”  This baptism is different from the Christian baptism that we have, which is a sacrament of God’s grace. 

John’s baptism is a sign of repentance, which for us is our response to God’s call to receive Christ into our lives. The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which literally means “turning around facing another direction.” 

It’s no casual saying of “I’m sorry,” “excuse me,” or “pardon me.”  It is an honest and thorough and often painful soul-searching change of direction of one’s life. It is a deep awareness of the need for God’s cleansing power in our lives. It marks a new beginning made possible by a loving God. It means new priorities and values, a new way of looking at the world. 

God wants to change us – to bring us joy and peace and fulfilment. Because we continue to fail, repentance is a daily experience for the Christian.  God’s faithful love and mercy reach out to us every day. No wonder we begin our worship with confession and absolution. 

This is the only way we can approach a holy and gracious God.

When I was the Campus Minister in Ateneo de Zamboanga, I met Willy, a college student, who came from a well off family. He had an easy “happy go lucky” life and would regularly go with his barkada to night clubs and discos.  By some unexplainable chance, he agreed to the invitation of some members of the Christian Life Community (CLC) to join a retreat during the Christmas holidays.  During that retreat he was touched by God’s grace. His encounter with the Lord changed his whole life. 

When his gang came one night during the retreat to invite him to have some good time at the disco, he dismissed them as the work of the evil spirit.

Carrie was a coed gifted with “photographic memory.”  She was sent from Manila by the Marxist militants to monitor the Jesuits and their school, Ateneo de Zamboanga. 

Out of curiosity she joined a retreat in the school during the Christmas holidays. I only discovered her mission, when she lost her ball pen. Seeing her so worried, I offered her my ball pen. She revealed to me that her ball pen had a microphone, and then she told me everything about her “mission” and her experiences working with the Marxists. She was quite high in the ranks of the Marxist, with a number of subordinates. She had the authority to order people liquidated.

Carrie encountered the Lord during the retreat. She decided to sever her ties with the militant group, which was both difficult and dangerous to do. She continued to deepen her relationship with the Lord and became an outstanding Christian student leader. Her whole life orientation was changed because Jesus touched her during the retreat.

“Prepare the way of the Lord!”  John the Baptist calls out to each one of us – to stop in the middle of our frantic preparations for Christmas to hear the message of Advent. 

We are called to examine ourselves, to repent and turn daily in a new direction – towards God.  God calls us to “prepare,” but not only in the ways of modern society. 

Advent and Christmas are wonderful times of the year, even though they can also be the most lonely.

Parties, family gatherings and the exchanging of gifts are part of the joy of this season. 

But let us commit ourselves to celebrating Advent properly with its message, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”













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