This Sunday, a Voice Echoes in the Mountains and Valleys of Your Immense Heart
The specific conditions of your life are the stage for a remarkable upheaval that is about to happen, says the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year C.
And by “specific conditions” it means really specific: Christ is coming into our world, with our president and our current pope — and he will interact in your life according to the way you have shaped it by your career, your pastimes, and your daily habits, good and bad.
The Gospel of Luke tells us exactly what should and should not concern us as Christmas approaches.
The impressive first sentence of the Gospel this Sunday does three things cleverly and succinctly.
Luke writes: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”
First, he is situating Jesus’s life in history. He is strongly making the point that he plans to give an accurate account of things that really happened. He starts with the Roman emperor, moves to local leaders and names the highest religious leaders to paint a picture of year that checks out to be at or around the year 30 A.D.
Second, Luke is describing what powers Jesus will upend. These are the rulers who the kingdom of heaven will supplant; these are the high priests his own heavenly priesthood will transcend; and this is the greatest of prophets who will be least in the kingdom of God when Jesus will himself be the final word of truth spoken by the Father.
Third, Luke is describing how Jesus will disrupt each of our lives. “God is the author of Sacred Scripture,” working through Luke, and God was hyper-aware of each of us as this was written, such that we can read our own personal circumstances on this December day into this reading from long ago, and we can know that we personally, today, need to hear:
“A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘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.’”
These words point to the drama present in every single one of our lives.
First, the Gospel clearly makes John a real model for every Christian in Advent. It says in no uncertain terms: In order to hear God and be his voice, you have to head to the desert.
From the beginning of time, listening to the wrong voices has proliferated the disaster of sin in the world. Adam and Eve listened to the snake instead of God; and from Noah’s neighbors before the Flood, to Judas at the Passion, to you, yesterday, the story of disastrous listening has continued. On the other hand, for Biblical heroes from Abraham to the Blessed Virgin Mary, to you, today, the key to flourishing and happiness has been hearing God’s word and keeping it.
The problem is that you can’t hear God in a noisy room. Carmelite nuns and Trappist monks retreat into great silences to hear him. We lay people can’t do that — so we have to make “oases of desert” in our crowded lives to hear him, in the nearest chapel or in our rooms.
Second, the Gospel makes clear that welcoming Christ is an arduous project of building interior pathways that requires real effort.
John says to “make straight his paths” by leveling mountains and filling in valleys. Americans know what that means. Europeans are often startled to travel on our highways and Interstates which, instead of going around landmarks, plow right through them, revealing the geological cross-sections of hills on either side of the road as we speed along.
This is very American. Our Interstates treat each of us like kings who should not be slowed by mountains or valleys in our hurry to get where we are going. In reality there is only one king worthy of that treatment: Jesus Christ himself.
So, at Advent, “What way are we to prepare for the Lord?” Origen of Alexandria asked. “Surely not a material way. … Should not the way be prepared for the Lord within? Should not straight and level paths be built in our hearts? This is the way by which the Word of God has entered. That Word dwells in the spaces of the human heart.”
The clear implication is that our hearts have mountains of pride and valleys of despair, and it will take hard, dedicated work confronting ourselves with honesty and a determination to cut through our edifices to make a level road for Jesus.
But Advent also gives us a very American hope.
The Gospel at Advent also tells us something we often forget: Each one of us can be as important as a Caesar or a high priest — or more terrible.
Americans should appreciate the way St. John Chrysostom put it: The “crooked things made straight,” he said, are the “publicans, harlots, robbers, magicians, as many as having been perverted before [who] afterwards walked in the right way.”
This is our Advent hope: Christ is coming to make “publicans and harlots” enter the kingdom of God before the most powerful religious leaders of our time.
Says St. John Chrysostom: “When he says, ‘Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;’ he is signifying the exaltation of the lowly, the humiliation of the self-willed.”
In the Holy Spirit’s powerful way of speaking to us in Scripture, all the readings tell the same tale about our personal drama. The Psalm casts us in the role of exiled Jews returning to our homeland in heaven — we are; to our homeland in heaven — and the First Reading reveals who Jesus is: The glory of God coming to replace misery with splendor as we stand tall to greet him.
And as he so often does, Paul sums up the Advent project in a phrase.
Paul says, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue it to completion.”
And that brings us full circle, because the good work begun in us is what the Gospel of Luke announced when it said, “John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Our baptism is the “good work” in us that God will “bring to completion.”
And what will “completion” look like? Christmas reveals exactly what it will look like. That is the day the Son of God enters the human family to show us how we can enter God’s family.
“Christmas is the appearance of the new, of the unimaginably ‘more,’” Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete wrote. “Christmas is the revelation of the Eternal Father, the Eternal Origin. The Incarnate Son, born on Christmas Day, is the ‘revelation of the Father and of his love’” (Gaudium et Spes, 22).
We spend Advent longing for more — and we get it at Christmas. God the Son becomes our “brother” and “friend” and God the Father as our “Abba.”
That doesn’t change anything about our life, which remains in the same circumstances it was in before Christmas. But it changes everything about our life, which is now filled with an unseen but giant purpose equal to the depths we felt were there all along.