John the Baptist called upon the Jews to prepare for the first coming of the Lord, and Mother Church recommends that we carefully consider his proclamation because it is of great significance for us her children, who, by our Advent discipline and devotion, are preparing to welcome the Lord into our hearts and minds anew this Christmas, both in anticipation of the welcome we would want to give Him at His second coming in glory, and also that we might be enabled here and now to better prepare ourselves and our world for that coming.
Isaiah – whose message the prophet Baruch echoed in our first reading -- had said of the times immediately before the coming of the Messiah:
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, every mountain and hill brought low. The crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth.
For St. Luke, John’s was that voice crying in the wilderness who, taking up the prophecy of Isaiah, had insisted that each and every one of us has something positive and, for ourselves essential, for the fulfilment of that prophecy; something that we can and should do. We are not to be passive, waiting for, expecting, God to do everything; on the contrary, we must work for the remission of our sins before the Lord, by sincerely repenting of them and by bringing forth fruits worthy of such repentance, fruits giving right expression to our hopes thus firmly set on the Coming One.
John the Baptist is still relevant for us today, his message is still valid and of the utmost importance if we would prepare well this Advent; therefore it behoves us to recall to our minds and take to our hearts these words of him sent by God for the ultimate preparation of His people for the coming of their Saviour and Lord.
It is common among practicing Catholics to more or less forget about the obligation to prepare the way for the Lord in their own hearts and minds as they tend to become settled in their ways and perhaps a little stagnant in their aspirations over the years. Many are content to limit themselves to taking care, being supremely concerned, that they ‘keep the Faith’, that they do not fall away from the truth they have long acknowledged and appreciated. However, since Jesus the Prince of Peace and Light of the World, intends to come anew into our lives this, and every, Christmas, they should be prepared and indeed, most earnestly desire, in their loving welcome for Him, to grow in their Catholic Faith by responding to the purpose of His Coming. These disciples of Jesus are regular in their observance of Sundays and holydays, and they take care to receive the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, frequently. However, though they do these things regularly, which is good, the danger is for them to do them routinely, which is not so good; for, having done these practices, which they often call duties -- duties which can be counted and ticked off as having been done for this week or for this month -- they then attend to the world rather than watch and wait for the Lord. They do not often think to undertake other, perhaps more interior -- even ‘one to One’ -- practices which are, most certainly, not such that can be called duties, since they are endeavours to respond to God’s secret invitation, to answer God’s Own loving call, made to them personally and indeed uniquely.
In the realm of nature think of the words of Scripture:
How I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. (Exodus 19:4)
Previous to such ‘salvation’, the eaglet -- clinging to some ledge on a high cliff -- had to hear, recognize, and totally trust its mother’s call before throwing itself off the ledge into the void, so that its mother could then swoop down and catch it on her shoulders and take it with her back on high for further practice and ultimate perfection. Think also of the chicks of the ancient murrelet, scarce two days old, drawn out from their shelter (at night for safety!), even just out of their egg shells, by an unseen voice, to scramble over rocks and -- avoiding predators --- rush into the shallows of hitherto unknown waters, waters getting deeper and deeper until they find themselves on the mighty sea itself, still following a voice only, before they suddenly meet their mother for the first time, as she comes toward them still calling but now offering welcome and love, safety and fulfilment.
So many Catholics hear the Church calling them from without themselves, but do not seem able to recognize, hear, and understand, God whispering within themselves, speaking to them in that secret place which is their soul. In that way they confine themselves to relative mediocrity: because they are, in fact, grinding to a halt on that divinely planned journey which can only reach its ultimate target and attain fulfilment by their perseverance in following God’s call to advance ever further. Coming to a halt after ‘duties done’, is mediocrity for one called by the Holy Spirit to become more and more like Jesus, ever more one with Him; and in Him, ever more truly, a child of God. Observers might think highly and speak well of such persons, because they have maintained, apparently remained at, a relatively high level in comparison with others. But that’s just it, God doesn’t compare one with another; if you stop, at whatever level, you will begin to stagnate, and that is, for you -- in the eyes of God the Father Who is calling you and the Holy Spirit Who wants to lead further along the way in answer to that call -- settling for mediocrity, settling for something much less than God wants of you, for you.
We are called, invited, urged, by the Father, to continually prepare the way for His Beloved Son to come into our lives more and more as the years go by, but certain good people would wish to excuse themselves from answering such an invitation because such holiness, saintly holiness so to speak, involves a degree of selflessness which they find frightening; they insist it is not for them, they can’t do it.
In one sense they are perfectly correct, because no one can do it! Human beings cannot make themselves holy by doing some special practices, this penance, or that devotion. Some will try, but, being motivated by the desire not only to become holy but also to be seen by themselves and perhaps appreciated by others as holy, they achieve merely a sham holiness, something which, if backed up with pride and ambition, is indeed an abomination before God.
Real, true, holiness, however, is God’s gift, not a human acquisition. We have to want, hope and pray to be, to become, what God wants for us, and in that way we help to prepare ourselves to receive God’s gift. But you know, it is not really good to want to be holy in the sense of wanting something for yourself, for that can so easily deteriorate into selfishness. It is far, far better to be centred on God, wanting to love the Father to the utmost of your being, with your whole mind, heart, soul, and strength, in Jesus. Only the Holy Spirit can bring this about and that is why such holiness, such love of God, is God’s most gracious gift: and it is a gift given only to those who prepare the way for the Lord; who patiently open themselves up to His secret working within them, by attending (a spiritual watching and waiting), desiring, and praying, for this supreme blessing, which is the gift of love, ultimately total love, of God.
Paul was very proud of his converts in Philippi and he acknowledged that not only were they indebted to him, but that he too was indebted to them for the assistance they had given him in his many needs. He prayed for them as special friends:
And this I pray: that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment.
Now, that should be the programme for all of us: our love can abound more and more in knowledge and depth of discernment and insight. Don’t think that is not for you, that you can’t do that. Of course you can’t!! But God can and He does want to do it for you according to your measure, to bring it about in you, the real and truest you. You might not, indeed, be the reading, the studious, type, you might not be a deep thinker, but that does not exclude you from taking up God’s open invitation: it is indeed an open invitation to all His children, but to you, it is a special invitation, a unique invitation to lead you to the fullness of your vocation, to give Jesus all your love, in your uniquely personal way. If you are not a reader, not a deep thinker, O.K., don’t feel the need to force yourself into long periods of tedious and fruitless study or reading. Do what you do best. Perhaps you like to be with people rather than with books: try, then, to do your best to be with Jesus more. I don’t necessarily mean kneeling in Church, you might have too many duties and tasks for that: then, just try to be more with Him in your mind and heart: just as you are so often with your children or your grandchildren in your mind and heart; if your life seems burdened with other people’s troubles, then mention those troubles to Jesus, ask His help, ask Him to bless those in need. Some find they can’t keep their attention on prayers which tend to become just empty words, and among them, some might indeed find great peace in just being in Jesus’ presence in the Church without saying anything: just content and happy to know that He is there and they are in His presence. I can’t go through all the ways of deepening love for Jesus here, but be quite sure of this, you are invited, called, urged by God the Father, to help in the development of your love for Jesus, His Son; to abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight: not knowledge of facts or insight into problems, but personal knowledge of Jesus, that is, understanding of, and empathy with, Jesus. Knowledge and insight of this sort will enable you to grow just as St. Paul wanted his beloved Philippians to grow:
That you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ.
At times, even some good Catholics, try to set good works for others at variance with, or as a substitute for, deep personal holiness, oneness with Jesus. They tend to think that they ought to be doing something for Jesus, some good work, some public, tangible, work that helps to free at least one corner of the world from its overwhelming burden of suffering and sin: work of that nature, they feel, is much better than just ‘becoming holy’. Of course, when they put it in that way to themselves they are loading the dice for their own purposes, because, comparing works for others with the implied selfishness of trying to become holy is totally wrong. God can find many people to do things for Him; for many there are who will do good things for motives that are not quite so good: such as self-approval or public appreciation; and frequently indeed, the very joy of working at something that occupies the mind and distracts the heart is more than enough for those easily oppressed by the hum-drum and uncertainty of daily life.
True holiness, on the other hand, is the most unselfish state possible -- which is why, as I mentioned earlier, the prospect of it frightens some -- being entirely God-centred. True holiness is love of God that leads to total forgetfulness of self; and such self-sacrifice in the footsteps of Jesus is only authentic and true when it is a spontaneously free gift, brought about indeed by the Holy Spirit, but allowed, accepted, embraced, and whole-heartedly followed, by the recipient. Such holiness is not common or easy. True holiness, it was, that sustained the early martyrs suffering persecution under the Roman Empire; and still today continues to manifest itself in the lives of those enduring and dying for Jesus under modern fanatical or totalitarian regimes.
Therefore, let us turn back to our second reading wherein St. Paul spoke to the Philippians of their:
fellowship (with him) in the gospel from the first day until now.
That work of letting:
love abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment.
which St. Paul urged them so strongly to undertake, is precisely our fellowship with him in propagation of the Gospel, our part in the eternal missionary work of the Church; and ultimately, it is only such a partnership of the whole Christian people in the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel will lead to the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that:
All flesh shall see the salvation of God.