The collect and readings for yesterday, the Second Sunday of Advent may be found here. The appointed gospel was Luke 3:1-6.
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, 2during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. 5Every 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; 6and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
About this time every year we begin to hear and ask a common question, “Are you ready for Christmas?” For some that question is answered with great anticipation about the coming of Jesus, the joy of spending time with family and friends, or the excitement of feasts, parties, gifts, and time off work. For others that question is answered with sadness and grief. It is a reminder of how this year will be different, a reminder of the past year’s sorrows and losses. For many that question speaks to busyness, shopping, decorating, travel, cooking, cleaning – the chaos of getting it all done. Regardless of how you answer that question, whether you fit in one of those categories, or offer your own unique answer, that question speaks of a particular day of the year.
So every year at this time, the Second Sunday of Advent, the Church asks us to hear John the Baptist. Whether it is from Matthew, Mark, or Luke on this day we hear the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. St. John does not, however, speak of a particular day. He speaks of a particular way – “the way of the Lord.” He does not speak about getting things ready. Instead he speaks about getting ourselves ready. “While the world announces preparation for a holiday, John announces preparation for a way” (G. Kevin Baker).
John’s message interrupts the circumstances of our life. His message disrupts the patterns and habits of our life within our family, social circumstances, business transactions, and consumer activities. John’s message is always a message of hope and promise. The word of God comes in every time, place, and circumstance offering a new way, a new life, a new world. John points to that coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance, echoing the prophet Isaiah,
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 (Luke 3:4-5).
This is not simply a description of the geography of the wilderness. It is, rather, a description of our inner landscape. With prophetic insight these words describe our life. Each of us could name the ups and downs, the highs and lows, the mountains and valleys of our life. We could recount the crooked paths on which we got lost and the rough ways on which we stumbled and fell. With prophetic foresight these words describe the possibilities that our life and world can be different – the low places are filled, the high places are made low, the crooked is made straight, and the rough is made smooth. These words describe both what is and what might be. Repentance is the movement from what is to what might be.
Repentance is how we prepare the way of the Lord. Human life is the way of the Lord. God does not come in the abstract. He comes incarnate as a human being. God comes in, through, and by human life – including yours and mine. So if our life is the way of the Lord then St John calls us to prepare our life, to repent. We repent, not because we are bad or defective, but because we are loved. God’s love and desire for us are the basis of every call for repentance.
Repentance is not focused on condemnation and judgment, guilt and remorse, or even saying, “I’m sorry.” Let’s assume you ask me for a ride to San Antonio. I agree and then start driving west. You see the signs for Del Rio but none for San Antonio. After a little while you say, “I wanted to go to San Antonio but we are going west to Del Rio. And I respond, “Yes, I am really sorry and I feel just awful about this.” That is not repentance! That is not the message of John the Baptist. If, however, I turn the car around and begin driving east to San Antonio then I have repented.
Repentance is about getting our life turned around and heading in a new direction. It means a change of mind and heart. The U-turn of repentance involves both a turning away from something and a turning toward something else.
Repentance begins with examining our lives and discovering the patterns and habits of seeing, thinking, speaking, acting, relating, and living as if God were not present and active. They are patterns that blind us to who God, our neighbor, and we really are. These patterns and habits distort reality, impoverishing our relationships and ultimately destroying love. They are things like anger, pride, fear, greed, the need for approval, perfectionism, being judgmental, gossip, the need to control or be right, individualism, busyness, sorrow, self-hatred, and despair.
Insight to these patterns and habits by itself is not enough. We must then turn away from these old and deadening ways of being in order that we might create new patterns and habits of seeing, thinking, speaking, acting, relating, and living that recognize the divine presence in all. We turn our gaze back to God, reclaiming the life that is and always has been our true life. We consciously and intentionally begin developing new ways of being that are modeled on God’s own life. Things like love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, justice, peace, wisdom, patience, beauty, creativity. In so doing we are conforming ourselves to the image and likeness of God in which we were created. We are preparing the way of the Lord.
Repentance is not just about getting to Christmas. It becomes a way of life, a way of being. To be sure, the way to Christmas is through St. John the Baptist, the wilderness, and repentance. But repentance does not end with Christmas. It ends with the fulfillment of a promise:
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Luke 3:6).