Spiritual Reflection – Prepare the Way of the Lord
As 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. (Luke 3:4 NRSV)
The four Sundays in the liturgical season of Advent have a singular theme: the preparation of humankind to receive the Divine. Traditionally the first Sunday reminds us of the angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a son. The second and third weeks feature John the Baptist filling the people with a sense of expectation. On the fourth Sunday, we hear of Mary meeting her relative Elizabeth, two mothers-to-be who are most definitely expecting.
The gospel of Luke quotes from the prophet Isaiah a phrase that sums up the message of Advent: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” To sharpen our focus on that singular phrase, let us consider the customary questions asked by inquiring journalists.
Who? The phrase “Prepare the way of the Lord” has an implied but unstated subject, just as all such imperatives do. If I say “listen to me,” the implied subject is the person to whom I am speaking. “Prepare the way of the Lord” is an imperative directed at all who hear it.
What? What does it mean to prepare? Preparation is all about doing some preliminary activity in advance of what is yet to occur. It is about becoming ready, making a space for something new, being receptive to what is to follow. Such activity is absolutely essential for the success of what will come later. The future is contingent, we might say, upon the present. A housepainter knows the necessity of doing the tedious prep work if the final coat is to last; gardeners know the importance of preparing the soil if the seeds they plant are to flourish; and the conscientious hostess knows that the success of her holiday feast depends on the slicing and dicing done long before the first guests arrive.
So it is with preparing the way of the Lord. There is a contingency here. The coming of the Lord is a matter of grace, a gift freely bestowed. But if we have not prepared the way, cleared a space, made ourselves ready, how can that gift be received?
Where? Where are we to prepare the way of the Lord? Where else but at the absolute centre of our being, in our heart of hearts, at the inner spring of all we are? “For behold,” says Jesus, “the Kingdom of God is within you.” Deep within you! The way of the Lord is to the centre of our being, forming the axis upon which all else depends. All other considerations, all other relations, flow from the Lord’s loving presence at the very centre of our lives.
When? When are we to prepare the way of the Lord? What time do any of us have but the present moment? Can we return to the past? Can we be certain of the future? As the apostle Paul reminds us, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.” Timing is everything. Now is the time to make ready the way of the Lord, to prepare our humanity to receive God’s divinity.
How? How are we to prepare the way of the Lord? John the Baptist is clear on this point: we must repent “for the forgiveness of sins.” Each of us is well aware of the individual sins to which we most easily fall prey, from which we most need to be free. Surely our greatest sin is pride, the sin of placing ourselves ahead of others, and at the centre of our lives where the Lord alone should dwell. “The secret of my success,” Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked, “is that at an early age I discovered I was not God.”
Why? Why should we prepare the way of the Lord? Because the destiny of our eternal souls depends upon receiving through faith the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Why Christ? Because “this is what he has promised us, eternal life.” In one of his many statements of self-disclosure, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”
Advent is the most countercultural of Christian seasons. While our fellow consumers become ever more frantic as they count down the shopping days until Christmas, our task is precisely the opposite. Ours is not to add more things to our lives, but to clear a space for what is truly needful; not to add to the clamour of our culture, but to be quiet and expectant. When Mary and Joseph seek a place for the Christ child to be born, they find no room in the inn. May the eternal Christ, seeking to be born anew within each of our hearts, find us open and ready to receive him—without a single No Vacancy sign barring the way.
We Christians spend a great deal of time trying to shape up and fly right. And yet how often our efforts fail! Advent is a time to step back from all our strivings and lay down the exhausting struggles with which we have burdened ourselves for so long. It is a time to hear again the emphatic voice of the Lord saying, “Be still, and know that I am God!” Advent is a time for getting out of the way so the grace of God may flow freely into the depth of our souls, filling us with the ever-flowing Spirit, lifting us gracefully into the presence of God.
James J. Rawls. On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith. (Bloomington, IN: WestBow Press, 2018.) eBook Location 418.