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.
When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage,
it seemed like a dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
on our lips there were songs. (R./)
The heathens themselves said:
‘What marvels the Lord worked for them!’
What marvels the Lord worked for us!
Indeed we were glad. (R./)
Deliver us, O Lord, from our bondage
as streams in dry land.
Those who are sowing in tears
will sing when they reap. (R./)
They go out, they go out, full of tears
carrying seed for the sowing:
they come back, they come back, full of song,
carrying their sheaves. (R./)
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 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 in the life of St Paul. He was chained in a Roman prison, probably in Ephesus. It is clear from that letter that he wasn’t at all sure of getting out of gaol alive. Yet, even though his situation when he wrote was dark and unpromising, the letter itself is the most hopeful and joyful of all Paul’s letters. The mood of this letter tells us that it is possible to remain hopeful in even when things look very dark. From his prison cell, Paul back with gratitude on his friendship with the Philippians and has high hopes for their future. He cheerfully recalls all the progress they have made so far as a local church. They were no more perfect than any other group of people, but Paul chooses to celebrate their exceptional generosity. He praises how they 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 looked for what was good in people’s lives. As a hopeful man, he had high ideals about what people could become with God’s help.
We need to look at ourselves and at others with 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. We just need to co-operate with the working of grace in our lives. Our salvation is in God’s hands and we can be confident that it will be brought to completion. By the end of our life this work will be complete, and we will have reached what St Paul calls, ‘the perfect goodness which Jesus Christ produces in us’.
During Advent we are meant, like John the Baptist, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus among us. We need to examine our conscience so see what in our lives requires straightening out. The imagery about filling in the valleys and levelling mountains and hills is a call to be more concerned to get justice for all of God’s people. In sporting language one could say that the Baptist called for a level playing field for all, so that everybody has fair access to the amenities and produce of this world. He was agains selfish hoarding, dominance and aggression. 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.
Many parishes have a Reconciliation Service during this time of Advent. Think of this as “Confession without the need of a shopping-list.” To some older folk, it may appear all too simple, all too easy. This is to misunderstand the purpose of the Reconcilation Service. Sin has a community dimension. When I do wrong, I offend the community by failing to live up to my Christian vocation. If the community is somehow diminished by my sin, there should be a community dimension to repentance. That is why the occasional public acknowledgement of our sinfulness and need of the grace of God differs from going into a Confessional to whisper my sins in the darkness. In the season of peace on earth to people of good-will, it is important to express our good-will, and act on it. We try to take our part in making his paths straight!