‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation...’ — Lk 3:4-6

Last week, we began our short season of Advent together. The season is rather like a journey: a structured time given to us so as to help us prepare for the coming or “advent” of Jesus Christ.

Last week, we were given our first signpost or marker on this journey: how we are to watch and wait for the Lord. This week, we see and hear the second sign or marker on our journey, as St. John the Baptist appears and commands us to “prepare a way for the Lord.”

It was certainly the mission of St. John the Baptist to do just that: to prepare a way for the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. St. John was very much God’s coworker: working to prepare the way of the Lord.

However, even though Jesus has come, we, too, still have work to do. This work is the mission to prepare a way for the Lord in our time and place. What does this mean and how are we to do it? As always, our readings provide some answers.

Not abandoned

We do not often hear from the prophet Baruch (5:1-9). (One occasion occurs at the Easter vigil.) Baruch was probably a disciple of Jeremiah, living at a time when Israel had lost almost everything, including the temple and the Promised Land. The holy city of Jerusalem also lay in ruins. The people, therefore, felt lost and abandoned.

By contrast, Baruch, as a prophet of God, provides a poem or song of hope and consolation. He reminds the people of all that God has done for them in the past and will do for them in the future.

Despite all the disasters, this is no time for sorrow or despondency, or giving up. Rather, it is a call to action, confidence and joy. It is amazing to think that Baruch lived more than 2,500 years ago, yet his message is so vibrant and relevant for today!

Our powerful psalm (Ps 126) picks up this theme. Think of the “mirabilia Dei:” that is, of all the wonderful works God has done for us. God’s amazing power can change even what was sown in tears into a joyful harvest of good. We can all think of some difficult situation that has been miraculously turned around by prayer and faith.

The second reading (Philippians 1:4-6,8-11) from St. Paul is, again, so current: It could have been written for us today! He does not gloss over all the problems and difficulties that the Church faced, or indeed that he had to deal with.

Instead, he asks that we all persist in trying to do God’s work and that we meet problems head on. He then offers a prayer that by doing this, our love may increase. This is wise and very important advice. In fact, his words are used during part of the Ordination Rite. and that prayer could be ours too: “May God, who has begun this good work in you, bring it to fulfillment.”

Herald His coming

In our Gospel (Lk 3:1-6), St. Luke is very precise in his account of the appearance of St. John the Baptist by giving an historic date and place. In other words, St. John the Baptist was not some sort of vague or symbolic entity but a real person, in a real place and with a real mission. His task was to prepare a way for the Lord.

St. Luke gives us a great image of this by repeating the words from the prophet Isaiah about making paths straight, filling in valleys and making mountains low. In Jesus’ time (and in our own time), if the king or an important person was coming to town, heralds would be sent ahead to prepare. Their task was to announce the coming of the king, of course, but also to make sure that roads were repaired, buildings were painted and to remove any junk or obstacles.

This same mission is given to us, for we are Jesus’ “heralds.” We, too, need to prepare a way for the Lord: that is, clearing away all the obstacles and junk that may block His path, and renovating what is tired or broken. (This is a reason why the liturgical color for Advent is violet/purple. Advent is a time of conversion and penance: things that will help clear away those obstacles and open a way for the Lord at Christmas.)

As St. Francis de Sales wrote: “Our life, too, contains many hills, valleys and tortuous ways…. Penance [can] lower those mountains of pride, fill up those valleys, those ditches of lukewarmness and tepidity. Fill up the ­valleys: that is, fill your heart with confidence and hope, because salvation is near at hand.”