In the second week of Advent, the prophet Isaiah proclaims to a people in distress a vision of hope! Assyrian success at empire building provoked resistance. Isaiah, preaching in the environs of Judea, counseled the leaders not to forge alliances with other nations against Assyria, but to place their trust in God. Though people all around them scheme and grab for power, their hope is the God who fashioned them to be a covenant people.
The message touches on a fundamental human weakness: fear and anxiety driving us to seek our security in power and control of others. Alienation, violence and war ensue. There are winners and there are losers. It’s a zero-sum game.
But Isaiah prophesies a new day. A day of hope. On that day, God will act to set the people free from their fears and will bring them home to a place of peace. Violence will be no more. Death will be destroyed. Right judgment shall prevail for justice, and the wicked will be silenced.
“There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain,” says the Lord. (Is 11:9)
For their part, the people are to make ready. They are to watch for the signs that the day is approaching so they will be able to receive the Lord’s anointed, the bringer of righteousness. They are to prepare for that day, not by arming for war or scheming to overpower their captors. Rather, they are to return to the righteousness of the covenant relationship with God and to remove from their midst whatever hinders God’s way of holiness. They are to exercise themselves in trust in God.
Lies, resentments, hatred, violence, the nursing of grudges, scheming for power and acts of coercion —these destroy the covenantal unity to which God calls them. They exhibit a lack of trust. Removing these obstacles is how they are to prepare.
“A voice cries out: ‘In the desert prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” (Is 40:3)
For the Gospel writers, John the Baptist embodies the message proclaimed by Isaiah. In terms sharper and more urgent than Isaiah, he proclaims, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt 3:2)
With that word, “repent,” he summons the crowds to make the same kinds of preparations required by Isaiah centuries before. In John’s own day, lies, resentments, hatred, violence, grudges and coercion permeated everyday life. In their fear and distress, the impulse to grasp for power was real. If the people of Judea were to receive the promised savior, they would need to clear out the obstacles in their hearts.
We, too, face the same call. God seeks ever anew to enter our world and heal it, to renew it from within. This season of Advent invites us to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” so that we might be ready to receive him when he comes. Even if he should come in the naked vulnerability of a newborn child.
As we enter more deeply into this Advent season, let us each take advantage of this annual opportunity to discover, to name and to remove any obstacles to his coming in our own lives so that God’s promise of redemption and healing might be reborn in our world through each of us.
Jim Voiss, S.J.
Vice President for Mission and Ministry