As we now find ourselves in a new liturgical year and in the time of late November and early December, we have entered the season of Advent, a season of waiting and preparation for the Nativity of Christ. I am always a little dismayed during this time of year because our secular culture has really just forgotten this liturgical season. Everywhere I look I already see homes with Christmas lights and decorations already lit, Christmas songs on various radio stations (very few religious ones by the way) and holiday sales in many stores. And to think, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet.
Maybe this attitude speaks to a condition of our human nature. We want to have all of the good things that are available to us in this great Solemnity of the Nativity and yet we somehow overlook that work must be done in preparation.
The Gospel reading for the second Sunday in Advent this year speaks to us of the ministry of John the Baptist: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went about into all the regions of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”’” (Luke 3:2b-6)
This ministry reminds us that if we desire to fully participate in the true joyous event of the Nativity of our Lord, Christmas, to “see the salvation of God,” then there is Advent work to be done beforehand.
In order to accomplish this, the Church, in our liturgical year, gives us this time in the four weeks leading up to the celebration of the Nativity of our Lord. In the readings of these Sundays we will hear about the preparation that had taken place in history. The preparation of the world through the announcements of the prophets, the immediate preparation through the ministry of John the Baptist, the personal preparation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to become the mother of our Savior. This last portion is also expressed in a beautiful way within the liturgical life of the Church in the celebration of Rorate Masses in Advent. Historically these Masses, which honor the Blessed Virgin Mary, take place in the pre-dawn darkness of the early morning. They were usually timed so that right at the end of Mass the sun would be rising. Again a reminder that there is Advent work to be done before the sun (or the Son) comes.
In many of the parishes of the Church, Advent is also a time for penitential devotions which focus our attention on our sinful condition and make evident to us that there are certainly places within our own lives that must, with the help of Almighty God, be rectified in order to fully participate in the joy of the Nativity. Again this is Advent work that must be done.
During this season of Advent the announcement of John the Baptist can be a sure guide for this penitential outlook. We can spend some time in contemplating the above Gospel reading and apply these words to our own lives.
St. John begins his prophesy with “every valley shall be filled.” This certainly may be the most obvious of the things we must attend to. We each know that there are low points in our lives, physically, morally and spiritually, that need some attention. If we look to our actions we know that we are sinners and certainly we know that there are many ways in which we could be more fully following our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in how we think, in how we speak and in how we act. This will certainly be a part of our participating in a penitential devotion during this Advent season, but really it should be a part of the entire season of Advent. We must take time to fill, with God’s grace and love, those places which are lacking.
John the Baptist next tells us, “every mountain and hill shall be made low.” This too needs a little bit of reflection within our daily lives. These ‘hills’ or ‘mountains’ can be seen as those places within my life where I put other things as my goals apart from the service, worship and love of God. We each know that oftentimes we seek after the wrong things within our lives and put our own selfishness and self-centeredness before God. These places that we raise up need to be lowered, so that we can put our full attention on God and His Son Jesus Christ Whom He will send to us in the upcoming Nativity.
John the Baptist continues, “the crooked shall be made straight and rough ways made smooth.” Here too we can think of our journey through life as a road. Now we would certainly like any road we travel upon to be without dangerous curves and have a smooth ride. But unfortunately, dangerous curves do sometimes enter into our lives. Any time we misdirect our attention away from God or follow after misguided things, then we are veering away from placing all our thoughts, words and actions on God. We have entered a place with a dangerous curve. Advent is the time to remove these curves and make our way, our life, straight to the Lord.
John the Baptist does show us the way, “every valley shall be filled,” “every mountain and hill shall be made low,” and “the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth.” This is the work of the Advent season. And it is a work that is to be accomplished, not just in the hour of time taken at a penitential devotion but must rather occur throughout the entire time of the Advent season.
To bring this home for myself this year I have decided to adopt a custom that I recently read about from the Germanic traditions. It is a quaint custom of the Advent buzzard. The custom is to place a representation of a buzzard (for me I found a stuffed turkey
vulture) somewhere within your home, usually by the entrance door. When entering the home each day we are to smack the buzzard and repeat the words of Romans 13:12: “The night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” This simple action reminds us that it is not just one liturgical action that will truly change our lives, but rather putting the lessons of those liturgical actions into every moment of our lives, entirely uniting ourselves to Jesus. This will bring us closer to Christ in all things and then truly we can celebrate the birth of Jesus, not only into our world, but into our hearts and lives as well. In a book entitled “Advent Landmarks” by Robert Hershey we read concerning this custom of the Advent Buzzard, “A psychologist would tell us that this is a crude way of acknowledging the struggles within us. The educator would add that this physical gesture is an instance of learning through action. The preacher would suggest that there is a symbolic significance in this effort to strike a blow for a new life. And they would all be right. There are two comings of Christ to which Advent points. The one in the Advent in the babe in Bethlehem; the other is in the advent of our hearts.”
The fact that the sun sets so early during this season reminds us that there are still deeds and areas of darkness around us that call us to seek forgiveness; this darkness is sometimes in how we think and act and sometimes in the actions of others. But in the preparations of this Advent season, we are also aware that a great light is about to dawn upon us, the all-consuming light found within the birth of our Savior.