This reflection was written and delivered by Fr. Andrew Downing, S.J., during the second leg of the Young Adult Advent Reflection Series of the Archdiocese of Newark, held at St. Aedan's on December 13, 2018. For thoughts and questions, email Fr. Downing at email@example.com.
If the season of Advent, which the Church now celebrates, were to have a sound-track, the reading we just heard would be the refrain.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
Those lines written by the Prophet Isaiah echo through the season: St. Luke quotes them in his Gospel, as we just heard, when he introduces John the Baptist, and – in one form or another – we hear them in the scriptures throughout Advent. They mark the season, making it a holy time, and they give a direction for our prayer. What are we to do in these weeks leading up to Christmas? “Prepare the way of the Lord” – in our hearts and in our world; watch for Christ’s coming – born into our lives and into the lives of the people around us; so that come December 25th we might see in the flesh the salvation of God! And that is what we can do together this night as we pray now: prepare, watch and see.
We prepare. Christ was born away in a manger well on 2,000 years ago . . . too late to prepare for that. Christ will come again in glory at the end of time . . . there’s time to prepare for that, but it may be hard to keep on task. Christ is born in the heart of each and every man and woman, who bears his name – who dares to answer to the name “Christian” . . . now that is something we can prepare for! “Preparing the way of the Lord,” means preparing ourselves for the birth of the Savior, who takes flesh in us, when we allow Christ’s Spirit to form us, to breathe into us, to make us over into the image of Jesus. Christ is reborn in every Christian – in everyone, who can put away their old lives of living for themselves and put on the new life of living in Christ for others.
“Preparing the way of the Lord,” means, then, putting aside all those things that keep Christ from being born – from becoming real – in ourselves, in our flesh. Is there room within your heart for Christ to be born this Christmas? Is the way to your heart straight and smooth – open to the whisper of God’s Spirit, to the loving touch of God? Or have you hidden your heart behind crooked ways – hoping that God will give up trying to reach you, if you can only hold him off long enough (as if he would)? Where are you, this night, on the “winding roads” of your life? Would you welcome him, if he knocked at the door of your heart?
Part of preparing the way of the Lord is having the courage to look at yourself and at the way you are living your life, and having the honesty to admit that while parts of your heart may be open, there are other parts that may be closed. There may be sides of your life that you are ready to bring into the light and share with God; there may be other sides that you want to keep hidden in darkness. In each of us there is sin. There are all those things that keep Christ from being born in us – that keep us dead to God, dead to one another. But tonight you have the chance to be free of them, to bring them into the light, to make the closed and crooked ways of your heart an open highway for the love of God. Knowing that it is God’s great desire to save his people – all his people – you can, as you feel called, confess your sins and experience again God’s mercy toward you. The priests, who are here this evening, are here for you.
Our prayer this evening is not just about preparing our heart, though. It is also about watching: watching for all those times and ways and people, where Christ is being born anew. Advent is a time of anticipation, of giving ourselves over to the delicious suspense of waiting, for we do not know where and when God will choose to come to us. Yet even as we wait and watch for Christ’s birth, we have here a focus. In the darkness of this night, we have a light to draw our eyes and hearts to what is true and real and present with us, even now as we watch: Christ here with us now in the Sacrament upon the altar. To look upon the Sacrament here reminds us that the Lord, whose way we prepare in Advent, whose birth we watch for, comes to his people even now, remains with his Church even on this night, to give us hope, to give us a reason to believe that he is born in you, in me, in his people.
So let us watch for his coming by together keeping watch tonight over the light of his presence on the altar. With prayer, with song, with silence, we strengthen one another by our presence here tonight. And we draw strength from the One, who is with us now – who guides us, forgives us, inspires us – Jesus.
Finally, in keeping watch in the darkness of this night, we may also come to see. Looking for where Christ is born anew into the world, gazing on Christ present here in the Blessed Sacrament, trains the eyes of our hearts to see when we leave this time of prayer tonight and return to our homes, to our lives of work and study, to our everyday lives as followers of Jesus. If we can search our hearts for where Christ may be born in them, if we can believe that Christ comes to us now in the midst of our gathering, then we shall be able to see more and more the ways God comes in power with salvation to our world. The waiting of Advent is not really for God to be born – he has already done that! It is the waiting for God to come with salvation for you, for me, for the whole earth. It is the waiting for the full coming of the Kingdom of God.
God’s Kingdom – what Jesus announced – is God’s dream for the world. It is the dream of a world, where all people, as diverse as we are, can find unity in Christ and harmony in our lives together. It is of a world, where the relations of peoples and nations find their direction in a universal desire for justice and peace. It is of a world, where the planet itself – our common home – finds itself cared for by people, who know it for what it is: God’s Creation, a gift given to humankind, not its possession. It is the dream of a Christmas truly at peace; it is the dream of a new creation foretold before Jesus’ birth. It is God’s dream – and it can be ours, as well, if we choose to believe.
What we do here tonight, with the preparation of our hearts by our words and prayers, with the watchfulness of our eyes before the Blessed Sacrament, make ready the eyes of our hearts to see God’s kingdom come. So let us be attentive; let us be silent; let us enter into the prayer of this night. And when we leave, let us keep our eyes open to see the coming of the Lord, the birth of Christ in our lives and in our world.
Maranatha – Come, Lord Jesus!