Advent is a time of waiting, listening, holding back, and watching the beauty of both the day and the night take place. It can be a good time for spiritual reflection by asking ourselves important questions like: “How am I different this year than I was last year?” “What has changed within me?” “What has changed around me?” “What seems to be the same?” “How do I need Christ in my life and my world this year?” But let’s be real! Advent is also a time of preparing for Christmas. This year the Fourth Sunday of Advent is also Christmas Eve which shortens our preparation time for Christmas all the more.
The gospel reading this weekend points out to us that the struggle to prepare for the coming of the Messiah while being overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of our world is not new. While the introduction for John the Baptist’s proclamation “To prepare the way of the Lord” appears to be set against a background of peace and tranquility, we know from history that the Roman Empire had gained control over the lands that border the Mediterranean Sea. There was an enormous and complex system of business and finance dominated by international trade, an enforced system of taxation, and large bodies of slave labor. There was a diverse assortment of ethnic peoples, high government and religious officials, merchants, small business people, slaves, and minorities who were the poorest of the poor.
The writer of Mark’s Gospel solemnly declares that God chooses to intervene at this moment in history with all its complexities and challenges by quoting the Prophet Isaiah, “Behold I am sending my messenger ahead of you: he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”
A question that comes from the ageold struggle to keep Advent while preparing for Christmas is: “How do we wait and watch for God in the busyness of our Christmas preparation?” I believe that we have to calmly and consciously accept the reality of the Christmas rush but at the same time cultivate a separate preparation for the coming of the Messiah. This cultivation means being attentive not only to the beautiful and colorful Christmas lights but also to the women and men, often from third world countries, who manufactured the lights. It means being attentive to not only the ringing of the Salvation Army bells but also the volunteers who are ringing the bells often in damp, cold and unpleasant winter weather. It means being appreciative of people whose effort and time have prepared various holiday festivities. It means being attentive to our own emotional makeup that motivates us to be watchful in the first place.
I believe this reflective approach is in sharp contrast to the noisy busyness of the world’s preparation for Christmas. It needs to be practiced and developed like learning to play a musical instrument, to use a sewing machine, or to master a computer program. I believe we need to grasp the urgency in today’s gospel reading. It is time to get ready. There is work to be done, paths to be straightened, valleys to be filled, mountains and hills to be laid low so that what is inside us is as important as what is under our Christmas tree.
Fr. Bob Kelly