The Old Testament book of Proverbs has a beautiful image of Lady Wisdom setting herself up, and preparing a feast for those who would accept her invitation to partake of her blessings. “Wisdom has built her house, she has set up her seven columns; she has prepared her meat, mixed her wine, yes, she has spread her table. She has sent out her maid-servants; she calls from the heights out over the city: “Let whoever is naïve turn in here; to any who lack sense I say, ‘Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed! Forsake foolishness that you may live; advance in the way of understanding.’”
Back in March, we joined Mary at the Feast of the Annunciation, when she received the Angelic greeting, “Hail, Full of Grace!“, and she conceived her child when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her. In the infancy narratives of St. Luke, we will notice the repeated refrain, “And Mary pondered these things in her heart.” Mary, by the light of her immaculate heart, grew in the wisdom of the mysteries of her divine son. In the Litany of Loreto, one of Mary’s titles (going back to St. Augustine) is, “Seat of Wisdom.” And now, in this second Sunday of Advent, we join her again in her last month of pregnancy. Mary, Lady Wisdom, is almost done preparing her feast, the choicest meal and wine—which, of course, is the body and blood of her Son, the Word and Wisdom of God, whose flesh is real food, and whose blood is real drink. Lady Wisdom is preparing her feast, the sweet bread and choice wine of heavenly joy, and she is nearly ready!
Our Mass readings today are about preparing. Clearing the clutter and obstacles, the rough patches, out of the way, and preparing to welcome the Son of God and Son of Mary into our hearts again at the completion of our Advent season.
Our First Reading, from the short book of the Prophet Baruch, tells of a more ancient image of the Mother of the children of God: not Mary, but rather the city of Jerusalem (indeed, in many Marian feast days, the Old Testament reading or psalm praises Jerusalem, because of this connection between Mary and Jerusalem as two images for the “Mother of the children of God”). Baruch says, “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever! …Up, Jerusalem! Stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One! … Led away on foot by their enemies they left you: but God will bring them back to you… For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the… gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.”
Our readings today share not only the theme of anticipation and preparation, but of exodus. The people of God were led away in exile, in shame, as a consequence of their sin. But while they were in exile, they repented, rededicated themselves, and in our first reading, are being brought back to Jerusalem, who waits for them with deep longing. Not just those who were sorrowfully marched to Babylon, in the East, but also those who earlier were dispersed to every nation by the Assyrians. This isn’t just the return of Judah, but the restoration of all Twelve Tribes, the whole people of God. And because the Northern Lost Tribes had dispersed to every nation, all nations will be part of the promise of restoration, of calling Jerusalem (and later, Mary) their mother.
Our Gospel Reading, from this upcoming year’s exploration of the Gospel of Luke, begins by setting the context for what he has to say. Luke isn’t retelling a myth, it’s not storytime. He’s presenting a historical fact. “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.” Mythical stories don’t normally start out so dry and detailed. They start with “Once upon a time…”. The 3rd-century writer Origen points out that in Jewish histories, they establish the place and time by naming the Jewish rulers in power at the time (“In the days of Uzziah, king of Judah, and in the days of Jeroboam, son of Joash, king of Israel…”). But Luke isn’t giving us just a Jewish history, but a global history, and so Luke begins giving both the Roman and the Jewish rulers. St. Gregory the Great points out that Luke identifies both kings and priests, because this is the beginning of the history of Jesus, who is the true and eternal king and high priest.
John the son of Zechariah, St. John the Baptist, “went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Why the Jordan? Because the Jordan River is the threshold of the Promised Land. Ancient Israel had been on their exodus from captivity and slavery in Egypt, and crossed the Jordan River to enter into the Promised Land. Part of the expectation of the Messiah was that he would inaugurate a new exodus. And as we saw in the first reading, this expectation was deepened (and partially fulfilled) in Israel’s exodus back from their captivity in Babylon. But as we also saw in the first reading, this expectation was not just the return of the exiles in Babylon, but the return of the exiles dispersed through all the nations: a restoration of the unity of Israel, a new Kingdom of God (a fulfillment of the kingdom of David, and the Son of David—the highpoint in Israel’s history) and which now would include all nations.
And so John the Baptist is out at the Jordan calling for what? For people to repent. Because it was the sinfulness and corruption of Israel—their betrayal of their covenant with God—that caused the Exile, and caused the dispersion of the Lost Tribes. And it is the repentance of Israel—the return to fidelity to God—that brought about the return from Exile, and will bring about the restoration of Israel and the new Kingdom.
So John is out at the Jordan, calling the people of God to prepare themselves, because the time has arrived for the Messiah and the New Exodus and the Kingdom of God. How does one prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah and his new Exodus? By clearing the path, paving the royal road, pulling down the mountains, filling up the valleys, making the winding road straight, and the rough road smooth. But not a physical road. Because this isn’t going to be a physical exodus, because it isn’t a physical destination. It’s a supernatural destination, the new kingdom of God. It’s a new state of being, the fulfillment of the promise of Emmanuel, “God with us,” in our new hearts, in our healed souls. God within us, within all humanity, in all nations. So the preparation we, too, are called to enter into, to get ready for the coming of the Messiah, is to turn away from sin and turn to a life of grace: repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That’s the condition that makes Israel ready to meet her Messiah, because it’s sin that exiles us from God. It’s sin that, in a sense, drives us away from the promised land that God made to be our home.
Something that struck me as I was reading this about John, is that the people John is calling out to are already people in the covenant. They’ve already had their baptism, so to speak, into the Promised Land. What John is requiring of them is to come to the Jordan again to be forgiven of their sins after their entrance into the covenant. That sounds like we are being invited, not to the sacrament of baptism; but the sacrament of reconciliation! We have already entered into the Church, the covenant, by our baptism. But we are being called to renew our baptism—which we have betrayed by our sinfulness, our neglect, and our worldliness—by the repentance and forgiveness of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which some of the saints have called “a kind of second baptism.”
There are many ways in which each of us can interpret in our lives and our spiritual condition the images of valleys to be filled in, hills to be brought down, crooked ways to be straightened, and rough ways to be smoothed. For example, in the commentary on this Gospel reading by Dr. John Bergsma, he says:
“Every valley shall be filled” refers to hope, encouragement, and new life being granted to the poor, the oppressed, the lowly—people who feel they have been forgotten by God or are not worthy of God’s attention.
“Every hill made low,” refers to the humbling of the proud, the repentance that the strong and arrogant must undergo in order to receive God’s salvation.
The “winding roads” and “rough places” refer to the twists and turns of the human heart, contorted by sin (Jer 17:9). The human heart needs to be “simplified” or “straightened” by honest and truthful confession of sin.
This is how we prepare the way for the coming of the Lord: by repentance and conversion. We prepare for the upcoming celebration of the first coming, the humble birth, of the Lord in in Bethlehem. We prepare for his second coming in glory and judgment. And in between, we prepare for his sacramental coming at every Mass, as wisdom’s feast, the bread and wine that Lady Wisdom has made and invites us to; Lady Wisdom, who is the Church, who is Mary, who has spread her table, and invites us to the feast she has made. Let us now prepare to receive him.