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In Sunday’s readings (Second Sunday of Advent, Year C) we hear a particularly formal proclamation of the Gospel – an announcement of the Good News of our salvation. St. John the Baptist comes “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
He calls us to an enormous task: “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.”
John is echoing the words of Isaiah in the first reading: “God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God … for God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company.”
What he is describing is a massive earth-moving project. He is describing changing the terrain to create a straight and flat road to get to God. He is describing doing in our souls what the road crews that built our Interstate Highway system did: Blast through the mountains, bridge the chasms with enormous spans and make it easy for Christ to come. That’s extremely hard work.
What does it mean in our lives? It means destroying our mountains, the attachments to habits and comforts that make it hard for goodness to make headway. It means filling our chasms — the sheer gaping holes of sins in our lives that we never seem to pass over.
That seems like too much work to be Good News.
But at this time of year, I like to think of the Good News of repentance with an image of two chores for children.
First, imagine a father says: “Go into the attic and bring down all the boxes piled in the far corner.”
The children, to say the least, do not rejoice. They even complain a little and drag their feet. The whole job is unpleasant: The long climb up the narrow, steep stairs; the stooped walk through the dark, scary space; the weight of the boxes that they have to push, drag and hoist down into the light.
Now imagine the father saying: “Go into the attic and bring down the Christmas decorations.”
The whole picture changes. Suddenly, the children are happy to do the chore. As they climbs the stairs they are thinking of gifts, and the stairs are no longer as steep. As they pulls down the boxes, the prospect of the bulbs and strings of lights make them easy to carry. As they pile them up in the family room, the excitement builds.
We think of repentance as drudgery. It entails the steep climb into the dimly lit recesses of our soul, where we don’t quite feel at home, even though we are even more deeply in our own place. It entails lugging out the collected baggage and exposing it to the light of day.
Repentance is messy and hard.
What makes it a joy is thinking of its purpose.
“Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights,” says the first reading. “Look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God. Led away on foot by their enemies they left you: but God will bring them back to you borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones.”
We were led away by sin and became exiles, but by repenting and placing ourselves in God’s power we will experience the recovery of our true homeland.
And St. Paul assures us that we don’t have to do the work alone. “I am confident of this, that the one who began the work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.”
That’s what Advent is for: Repent and seek forgiveness for sins. Pull the boxes out of your attic and hand them over in the confessional. Then do the things that will level your mountains and span your chasms: Give God the things you hold on to: Give your “me time” to prayer, offer up your attachments and give your spending habits to Jesus Christ in the poor.
Then wait for God to turn the world bright again.