Second Sunday of Advent: Baruch 5:1-9, Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11, Luke 3:1-6
It’s a phrase familiar to us: the valleys shall be filled and the hills made low. We hear it from St. Luke and Baruch in today’s readings and, of course, Isaiah, whom Luke quotes. On a purely aesthetic level, my reaction is a bit of dismay; I like mountains and valleys – they’re a magnificent part of God’s creation. But this might be part of the point – they are striking features of this world, but the Savior’s reign is not of this world. It is incomprehensibly greater and more difficult for us to imagine, much less get to. That’s the point in a nutshell: by leveling mountains and valleys, God makes the Kingdom accessible. He gives us a way to come to Him, a way specifically embodied in Jesus Christ.
As we dig into the syntax and phrasing of Luke’s gospel, we’ll see that there are more layers to this message that speak to the role we play and the role God plays. We begin to see the genius of this image and the crystalline truth to Jesus’s words to St. Thomas as recorded by St. John, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6).
But first, let’s turn our attention to the prophecy in the book of Baruch, in the past seen as either a part of Jeremiah’s prophetic books, a stand-alone book written by Jeremiah’s scribe, or a text closely fitting near Jeremiah and Lamentations (incidentally, Baruch is not a part of the Protestant Bible or the Hebrew Bible, but was included in the Catholic canon as early as the mid-300s by Church Fathers like Athanasius and Cyril of Jerusalem). The prophet is directly addressing the people of faith, whom he calls “Jerusalem.” This word cannot be separated from the holy place, however, where the Jews placed their great temple, the dwelling place for God. Thus, Jerusalem is both a people and a holy place, which is why the Catholic Church teaches that the new Jerusalem is the Church herself, both a temple to God and the people of God. With this in mind, we hear the prophet say: “Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery; put on the splendor of glory from God forever: wrapped in the cloak of justice from God, bear on your head the mitre that displays the glory of the eternal name.” Note that we are hearing instructions for how to present ourselves. There is preparation happening (as we live out during this liturgical season) and that preparation takes a specific form: wrapping ourselves in the cloak of God and the ceremonial headdress (mitre) that has God’s name upon it. This means we are to proclaim ourselves as belonging to God, proudly and loudly. Note, too, that we might call this a way of presenting ourselves, and we can start to see another facet of how Christ is the Way.
Next, we hear the prophet speak in the future tense about Jerusalem and we must understand that there is an eschatological meaning here; in other words, the future being proclaimed is the final meeting of humanity and God: “For God will show all the earth your splendor: you will be named by God forever the peace of justice, the glory of God’s worship.” This is a great promise, that God will show all the earth the splendor of His faithful. And it reminds us that while we can proudly present ourselves as belonging to Him, the reason we can do this is that the real action is His. He, in fact, lifts us up. He is the agent of salvation, we are His subjects. And so the prophet commands: “Up, Jerusalem! stand upon the heights; look to the east and see your children gathered from the east and the west at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that they are remembered by God.” What a great Advent message we hear the Jewish prophet declare hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. We present ourselves as God’s faithful, we look to the east (the direction of the rising sun and the Son of God, the Morning Star) and we see there that God has expanded His salvation to all humanity. And now the great image: “For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.” By now we realize that these physical landforms are to be understood within a different context: not the earthly but the heavenly kingdom. The valleys are the low spots of the spiritual journey, the mountains are the seemingly impassible obstacles the soul faces on its journey to God. God’s work is to level the spiritual ground, to give us a way to Him, clear and straight. This Way, of course, is Jesus Christ.
St. John makes this clear in the Book of Revelation: “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It was prepared like a bride dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Now God’s presence is with people, and he will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them and will be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone’” (Rev 21:2-4). The new Jerusalem, the very one that God spoke about with the prophet Baruch, is shown to St. John. Jerusalem (the city, the people) has prepared itself and dressed itself with the glory of God, like a bride dressed for her husband. And in this ecstatic vision of completeness, God is there, establishing a new reality for humanity in His kingdom, one without death, sadness, crying or pain. The book of Revelation is the vision of the Church having made her way across the straightened path to be united with God.
In the gospel, St. Luke makes the effort to explain that John the Baptist arrives in the world in a very specific time and place. He mentions Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Annas and Caiaphas. Why might he do this? Because he wants to emphasize that well-known prophecies are being realized on earth in a real way. This is an important shift in the eyes of the Church from one age to another; from the Time of the Promises to the Last Times. So John the Baptist is recognized immediately as the one whom Isaiah prophesied: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.'” This preparation, this initial way we prepare ourselves, is a deeper explanation of what Baruch sees. Baruch commands the faithful to stand up proudly and wrap themselves in the cloak of God’s glory. But in practical terms, how can a sinner do this? John the Baptist, in announcing Christ, shares the first part of His Way: “John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” This is part of what it means to wear an ornamental headdress with God’s name on it, to proclaim yourself as His – we must repent of our sinfulness, ask for His forgiveness, be baptized, that is consecrated, to Him. The Way has begun. This is how John can exhort us to “make straight his paths,” which is to make straight within ourselves the spiritual righteousness for which God designed us. This act of getting our spiritual house in order is just the beginning of the Way, but frankly something most of us spend the greater part of our lives trying to accomplish. It’s okay, we’re still on the Way.
The gospel reading ends with the final words of the prophecy: “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.” It’s important to see the shift in agency here. We are the agents of making straight God’s paths within ourselves, which is a matter of repentance and consecration of ourselves to God, but God is the one who does the work of filling valleys and making low mountains. This is important because we can’t think that Christianity is about us building the City of God. This work of redemption and the salvation of the New Jerusalem is entirely God’s will and only He has the power to accomplish it. We can’t be pulled in by overly charismatic communities here on earth who congratulate each other on their great work. This is a dangerous road of making idols out of our own work and clinging to this world. We must be on the Way to God, toward the spiritual kingdom that we neither deserve nor can earn nor can build. Humility is at the heart (which is why John preaches repentance and why Advent is considered a penitential season of preparation). St. Luke tells us later in this chapter that Jesus is identified as this one whom we have been preparing for. He is the salvation of God whom “all flesh shall see.” This is the importance of the incarnation of God in the flesh. He has come in a form we can see and touch, in our form, and He is the one who will straighten and smooth the Way to God.
The Way. This was perhaps the most difficult thing for me to grasp when I was a child because its so abstract. I could see Jesus as the Truth (He always proclaims the truth since He’s the very Word of God), and I could see the Life because of the Resurrection. But the Way seemed a bit weird – He’s a human, not a dirt path! As I’ve reflected upon this over the years, however, I realize that the Way is both a path and a way of acting or comporting oneself. Plus, I realized that Christ can transcend normal boundaries like He does in the Mass when being present in the Liturgy of the Word and in the signs of the bread and wine. He is perhaps more easily understood as the Way in the fact that He provides a perfect example by which we can model our lives and behavior. But more than that He is a Way in that we walk upon Him, His body that He laid down for us; we feed spiritually upon Him in the Eucharist; we gain adopted sonship and daughtership to God the Father through His incarnation; and we walk through His empty tomb to our own Resurrections that He made possible. There is no humiliation and condescension He will not bear for us. These more mystical and spiritual Ways are so much more profound than the role modeling Way because they bridge this world and the next. They are the heart of our faith and hope. The Way is much more complex and complete than I ever realized.