The Lord says this:
Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.
For God will give you evermore the name,
"Righteous Peace, Godly Glory."
Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height;
look toward the east,
and see your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you,
carried in glory, as on a royal throne.
For God has ordered that every high mountain
and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God's command.
For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of his glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.
He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the desert:
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"
We are in a very dark time of the year. The mornings are dark and the evenings darker still. Light is at a premium, and we have yet to reach the shortest day of the year. It is within that darkness that we have lit our second Advent candle today. The days may be getting shorter, but our Advent wreath is getting brighter. The growing brightness of our Advent readings says that we are drawing closer to the great feast of light, Christmas, the birthday of the one who declared, 'I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life'. With the birth of Jesus, the light of God's love shone over us in a special and wonderful way. In today's first reading, the prophet Baruch looks forward to a day when 'God will guide Israel in joy by the light of his glory.'
Advent is a hopeful season. Hope is such an important Christian virtue, something deeper than simple optimism of temperament. We can feel cheerfully optimistic about all kinds of things, but, strictly speaking, the true object of hope is union with God. We are hopeful because we believe in a God who can bring life out of death, light out of darkness. It is above all in dark times that we need hope. And we pray for hope and help for those going through dark days at the present time, for people insecure in their jobs or their health or their home life, and even more for those who have been displaced as refugees, and are waiting in the cold at barbed wire borders, hoping to get to Europe and a better life.
The second reading (from Philippians) was written out of a very dark situation. St Paul was in a Roman prison somewhere. It is clear from that letter that he wasn't at all sure of getting out alive. Yet, even though the situation in which Paul wrote that letter was dark and unpromising, the letter itself is one of the most hopeful and joyful of all Paul's letters. The mood of this letter tells us that it is possible to be full of hope in even the darkest of situations. Even in his prison, Paul looks at life with hopeful eyes. When thinking of his friends in Philippi, he recalls all the good they have done. That local church was no more perfect than any other group of people, but Paul chooses to celebrate the good that is there among them. He remembers with joy the ways they have helped to spread the good news from the days they first heard it right up to the present. We can be tempted in dark times to look at everything and everyone with jaundiced eyes. Paul encourages us to look at life, and, especially, at people with hopeful eyes, even in dark times. To look at people with hopeful eyes is to be alert to all that is good in their lives and to celebrate that goodness. It is to name, to ourselves and to others, what they have done more than what they have failed to do. Paul expresses the hope in that reading that God who began this good work among the church in Philippi would one day bring it to completion. Paul was not only in tune with what was good in people's lives, but he was also very aware of what people could become with God's help. We need to look at ourselves and at others with those kinds of hopeful eyes. God's good work has only begun in us. We are a work in progress, and, in spite of our failings, God will keep on working to bring the good work he has been doing in ourselves to completion. God does ask us to co-operate with his ongoing work in our lives. Yet, it is God's work and because it is God's work we can be hopeful that it will be brought to completion, and that one day we will all be complete, and that we will reach, what that second reading calls, 'the perfect goodness which Jesus Christ produces in us'.
In many ways, John the Baptist is an image of the church. At a later time, John pointed to Jesus, and encouraged his disciples to follow him, and become Jesus' disciples. (On occasions, unfortunately, the church could be accused of pointing to herself as the source of salvation). During this Advent season, the church concentrates on preparing us to celebrate the coming of Jesus as our Saviour. We must heed that call, and prepare our hearts for this great occasion.
We are called to straighten out our lives; to fill in the valleys, and to level the mountains and hills is about ensuring justice for all of God's people. In today's language, the Baptist wanted a level playing field for all, so that everybody has access to the goods of this world. The final words of Isaiah in today's gospel tells that "all people will see the salvation sent to us from our God." This is the direct result of making straight the ways of the Lord, filling the valleys, levelling the mountains, straightening the curves, and making smooth the rough places. We can all identify these areas in our lives. The gospel has a message for me. I am the one who is asked to turn from my sins, to turn to God, and to prepare the way for him to make his home within my heart. I am the one who is asked to ensure fair play and justice for others, so that I can see the salvation sent from God.
Filling valleys, levelling mountains, straightening the crooked road, preparing a pathway for the Lord this is our preparation for Christmas. Of course it involves decisions, and these decisions come out of the context of the realities of my life. God is always calling on me to respond to him. Responding to him is to become responsible. I have responsibility for my actions, and become willing to face up to the truth. There is a tendency to look for a softer, easier way.
Most churches have a Service of Reconciliation during Advent. In a way, we can think of this as "Confession without the shopping list." To the older generation, it may appear all too simple, all too easy. This is to misunderstand the thinking behind the Reconcilation Service. Sin has a community dimension. When I do wrong, I offend the community by failing to live my Christian vocation. If the community is lessened by my sin, there should be a community dimension to my repentance. That is why the public acknowledgement of our sinfulness, once or twice a year, differs from going into a Confessional to whisper in the dark. In the season of peace on earth to people of good-will, it is important to express our good-will, and act on it.