A soap salesperson and a priest were walking together down a street in a large city. The soap salesperson casually said, “The Gospel you preach hasn’t done much good, has it? Just observe. There is still a lot of evil in the world, and a lot of wicked people, too!” The priest made no reply until they passed a dirty little child making mud pies in the gutter. Seizing the opportunity, the priest said, “I see that soap hasn’t done much good in the world either; for there is much dirt still here, and many dirty people are still around.” The soap man said, “Oh, well, soap only works when it is applied.” And the priest said, “Exactly! So, it is with the Gospel.”
We handed out the Rejoice books for out Advent study, to prepare our hearts for the coming of our Lord and Savior, it only works if you read the material!
What is Advent? Why is it important? Lent is obvious: as Jesus makes His way to Jerusalem, to His trial and Cross and tomb, we travel with him with quieted voices, almost shameful faces, wearing the color of his bruises. Prayer, penance and alms giving come naturally to us in times of shame and grief like Lent.
But Advent’s time is different. First thing it is only half as long. And what comes at the end of our waiting is not a death but a birth. Whatever its challenges, pregnancy is not a period of despair. And even if we focus on the other aspect of Advent, the Second Coming, when Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” we joyfully greet this prospect with excitement, indeed we pray for it.
Our Advent readings today lack the gloomy mood of Lent. “Take off that dress of sorrow and distress,” says our First Reading, “and put on the beauty robe of God’s glory; wrap the cloak of God’s integrity around you; put the diadem of God’s splendor on your head” (Bar 5:1-9). Likewise, our Psalm promises those who go out ‘full of tears’ that they’ll come back ‘full of song,’ singing Advent carols. Hearing about the countless office parties and new year’s celebrations there is not much hope of Lenten sobriety in this country in any case. But what is it the liturgical calendar asking of us at this time of year?
“Wake up, take the high ground, look East,” says the Prophet, look towards the sun, because something wonderful is coming. “Purify yourselves in preparation for the Day of Christ,” says the Apostle (Phil 1:3-11). “Prepare,” says the Precursor (Lk 3:1-6). The mood of Advent is preparedness, excitement, eagerness: because something important is going to happen soon. So significant that Baruch says, “God has commanded the flattening of the mountains and the filling of the valleys.” So important that John the Baptist cries in the wilderness: “Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight… so all may see the salvation of our God.” The Christmas decorations may hang up early in our city and with mixed motives; but the urge to announce the coming of the Lord is a sound one.
Excitement, about Christ’s coming at Christmas and return at the end of ages, fine: but readiness? Are we ever ready? How could we prepare for such a thing? Well, Jesus once told a story that helps us understand. A king held a wedding feast for His Son, but those who He first invited would not come (Mt 22:1-14). He asked repeatedly. But they stuck to their own concerns and treated the King’s messengers badly, even killing them. It is a parable, of course, about God’s repeated invitation to Israel to join the party that is life in His Kingdom. Finally, in frustration, the King invites strangers “both good and bad” from the streets and what we would consider ghettos – in other words, the less than holy Jews and even the Gentiles. But then we get a strange variation in the story: one guy has come to the feast dressed in flip-flops, a T-shirt and dirty old shorts. The King has had enough of all this disrespect. So, he gets the police to throw the guy out. You understand, even vagrants in the Kingdom of God are expected to put on their Sunday best. Though we might never be completely ready for Christ’s coming at Christmas and at the end of time – or our coming to Him at the end of our lives – we can at least do our part to prepare ourselves to join at the feast. Even the poor shepherds in the field, received a little teaching from the Angels and though they had no gifts to offer, they brought their lambs, carols, and adoration.
Which is why God sends us John the Baptist as an invitation card today. It is to let us know the party’s happening and tells us to prepare. “Prepare a way for the Lord,” he pleads to us in Advent. “Repent and believe the Good News – for the forgiveness of sins.” Straighten out the sins in your life-story through confession, prayer, the sacraments; remove the obstacles of your vices by conversion and the cultivation of virtues in their place; make a straight path for God in your hearts. Prepare yourselves for the wedding feast coming, not in a tuxedo or wedding gown, but with integrity and godliness, as our first reading proposed, ready for what God has waiting for us.
How do we change to what really matters? Paul’s prayer for us today is “that your love for each other may keep increasing, and your knowledge [of God], and your perceptiveness so that you can always recognize what is best.” That, he says, is the way to “prepare yourself for the Day of Christ,” to ready yourself and observe the Advent ways. Our hearts are made for caring, our brains for thinking, our senses for identifying so, all three come natural in the world for us; yet how easy it is for our cares to go astray, our minds to be confused, our vision to be distorted. Hatred, prejudice, egotism, indifference – you name it – these things block us for Christ’s coming, put-up barriers, hills and ravines. But knowing, loving and serving God and His divine image in our fellows: these things ‘straighten out’ the way for Jesus.
When a religious makes profession of their vows or a new priest is ordained, the Provincial or Bishop uses St Paul’s words from our epistle today: “May the Lord who has begun this good work in you bring it to fulfilment.” But Paul wrote this prayer for everyone. If we live with integrity and godliness, desiring to know, love and serve God and His people, we are living for God – between now and Christmas, now and the end of our lives, now and the end of time, the God, who has begun this good work in us, will bring it to conclusion.