Sunday, December 9, 2018

Make straight the way of God within...


Homily: 2nd Sunday of Advent – Cycle C
          Having grown up in a suburban area southwest of Chicago, I’ve come to appreciate much of the wide open spaces that I’ve often encountered since living here in Indiana.  I mean, we had parks and other open spaces where I grew up, but nothing like the expansive farms of corn, wheat, and soybeans like we enjoy here in north-central Indiana.  And, as I drive through different areas of the state, I enjoy taking in these great open spaces that go on for as far as I can see and which often make me wonder about just how much more there is that I don’t see.
          Having grown up here in the Midwest, however, where the land is mostly flat, I am unable to appreciate what it means to live in the midst of mountains and valleys.  Only by way of vacations or other short trips have I experienced what it means to have to drive over or around a mountain to get to the next town or city or to have to climb down into the valley in order to find the road that will take you to the market.  As a result, I am unable to truly appreciate the difficulties associated with living in areas like these.  A Haitian proverb, speaking about the reality of the terrain in Haiti, but also about the difficulties they experience in their lives, says this: “Beyond the mountains, there are more mountains.”  Perhaps many of you are in the same boat as me and unable to appreciate the difficulties of living in such areas.  Thus, our ability to appreciate what the prophets speak about in today’s readings is, perhaps, somewhat limited as well.
          In the first reading, from the prophet Baruch, we find the people of Jerusalem in mourning for their children who have been exiled by foreign invaders.  As such, they have clothed themselves in the traditional garb of mourners.  The prophet has come to announce that, by God’s mercy, the children of Jerusalem are about to return and so he joyfully announces that the inhabitants of Jerusalem are to throw off their garments of mourning and are to put on festival clothing.  Then, they are to go to the highest place and look off in the distance.  What they will find is that every mountain has been flattened and every valley has been filled in in order to make a straight and wide way for the triumphant return of their children, thus signaling a bright future for their nation.
          For those of you who may have lived among mountains, I suspect that this image of mountains that have been flattened and valleys that have been filled in would seem to be very vivid as you imagine what life could have been like had the same happened in the area in which you lived.  Those of us who have spent most of our lives in Indiana, however, are probably more apt to focus on that image of a wide, flat space, and what that would look like from a high place (though it wouldn’t have to be too high around here).  Imagine how incredible it would be to see a whole nation of people traversing some of these expansive farmlands as if they were returning to their homeland.  Well, perhaps you’re not impressed, but nevertheless it is exactly these Scriptural images that the Church gives us this week in order to help us understand what God is calling us to do during this Advent.
          What we see in that first reading is that the prophet is calling for two movements: one, that the people must first prepare themselves, removing their garments of mourning and putting on festival garments, and two, that the way must be prepared for the one who is coming, making it level and smooth.
          Then, in the Gospel reading, John the Baptist turns this call inward as he calls the people to a “baptism of repentance.”  As the herald of Jesus, the Messiah who was about to reveal himself, John was calling the people to prepare not only by outward appearances, but also by inward dispositions as well: thus making their hearts ready to receive the Messiah for whom they had long waited.
          A line from one of my favorite Advent hymns states: “make straight the way of God within.”  John was calling the people to prepare the way for the Messiah to enter into their hearts.  Thus, it was not enough to cleanse their hearts from sin by a baptism in the Jordan River, but rather they also needed to prepare a way for the Messiah to enter into their hearts by true repentance: that is, by truly changing their lives and leaving behind their sinful ways.
          My brothers and sisters, we recall John the Baptist’s words today in order to remind us that God calls each of us to prepare our hearts to receive him.  God wants to come to us and to dwell in us and to lead us to our heavenly homeland, and, although we have already been baptized by water and the Spirit in the Sacrament of Baptism, we are still constantly in need of a “baptism of repentance” like the one John called for in the Gospel reading: for when we examine our hearts we discover that the way into them is neither straight nor smooth; rather it is obstructed by ‘mountains of sin’ and ‘valleys of despair’ and self-pity.  Far from being straight and wide, the way into our hearts is narrow as it twists and turns around these mountains and valleys: a result of rationalizing our behavior instead of correcting it.
          Our Advent task, therefore, is to knock down the mountains of sin and fill in the valleys of despair and self-pity, thus straightening the way for God into our hearts.  The best way that we can do this is to return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, for it is there that we can face the mountains that our sins have erected between ourselves and God as well as the ever-widening valleys of despair caused by our broken relationships with those around us.  And then we can watch as the power of God’s grace flattens the mountains and fills in the valleys, thus making the way between us smooth and easy to pass.  (Hmm, what a Christmas gift that would be: reconciliation with God and one another…)
          You know, it’s a shame for us that we are unable to celebrate the feast day of St. Juan Diego this year, since today, his feast day, falls on a Sunday.  It’s a shame for us because he can be for us a great example of one who, with the help of God’s grace, was able to flatten the mountains of doubt and fill in the valleys of fear in order to bring Our Lady’s message to the Bishop in Tenochtitlan, thus making the way smooth for Christ to enter the hearts of millions of people in Mexico and beyond.  Perhaps, in that same spirit, we, too, could “make straight the way of God within” and do the same right here in Indiana.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette IN – December 8th & 9th, 2018