St John the Baptist, El Greco, c.1600
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco [Web Gallery of Art]
Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)
Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Old Road to Auvers, Norbert Goenuette, 1892
Private Collection [Web Gallery of Art]
Charles Kuralt was a reporter with CBS TV in the USA whose On the Road stories were a regular part of the Evening News for 25 years. These were offbeat stories about real persons and were often uplifting. I remember one in particular from about 1970 when I, then a young priest, was studying in the USA. It featured an elderly man in a small town in one of the Midwestern states. His town was about 10 kms from the next town but in order to go from one to the other you had to travel 20 or 30 kms. The authorities in both towns were unwilling to build a road to connect them.
So this man started to build a road himself, using logs as a foundation, as I recall.
In 1982 Charles Kuralt gave a lunchtime talk in an auditorium in Minneapolis where I was on a pastoral programme in a hospital for three months, working as a chaplain. I went to hear the broadcaster. Someone in the audience asked him what had become of the road that the old man had begun to build. It turned out that the man had since died. But after his death the authorities completed the road.
This man was engaged in a form of what the Legion of Mary Handbook calls 'Symbolic Action', described in these terms: Observe the stress is set on action. No matter what may be the degree of the difficulty, a step must be taken. Of course, the step should be as effective as it can be. But if an effective step is not in view, then we must take a less effective one. And if the latter be not available, then some active gesture (that is, not merely a prayer) must be made which, though of no apparent practical value, at least tends towards or has some relation to the objective. This final challenging gesture is what the Legion has been calling 'Symbolic Action'. Recourse to it will explode the impossibility which is of our own imagining. And, on the other hand, it enters in the spirit of faith into dramatic conflict with the genuine impossibility.
The sequel may be the collapse of the walls of that Jericho.
The old man featured on TV wasn't thinking of himself but of those coming after him. Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
St Mark is repeating the words of Isaiah used in today's First Reading: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40: 3).
Fr Alfred Delp SJ
(15 September 1907 - 2 February 1945) [Wikipedia]
Fr Alfred Delp SJ, hanged by the Nazis in Berlin on 2 February 1945, is in many ways an Advent figure. Advent of the Heart is a collection of 'Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings - 1941-1944'. The People of Advent is one of his prison meditations, written exactly 70 years ago. I have highlighted some parts.
The herald angel
Never have I entered on Advent so vitally and intensely alert as I am now. When I pace my cell, up and down, three paces one way and three the other, my hands manacled, an unknown fate in front of me, then the tidings of our Lord's coming to redeem the world and deliver it have a different and much more vivid meaning.
And my mind keeps going back to the angel someone gave me as a present during Advent two or three years ago. It bore the inscription: Be of good cheer. The Lord is near. A bomb destroyed it. The same bomb killed the donor and I often have the feeling that he is rendering me some heavenly aid.
Promises given and fulfilled
It would be impossible to endure the horror of these times - like the horror of life itself, could we only see it clearly enough - if there were not this other knowledge which constantly buoys us up and gives us strength: the knowledge of the promises that have been given and fulfilled. And the awareness of the angels of good tidings, uttering their blessed messages in the midst of all this trouble and sowing seed of blessing where it will sprout in the middle of the night.
Then angels of Advent are not the bright jubilant beings who trumpet the tidings of fulfillment to a waiting world. Quiet and unseen they enter our shabby rooms and our hearts as they did of old. In the silence of the night they pose God's questions and proclaim the wonders of him with whom all things are possible.
Footsteps of the herald angel
Advent, even when things are going wrong, is a period from which a message can be drawn. May the time never come when men forget about the good tidings and promises, when, so immured within the four walls of their prison that their very eyes are dimmed, they see nothing but grey days through barred windows placed too high to see out of.
May the time never come when mankind no longer hears the soft footsteps of the herald angel, or his cheering words that penetrate the soul. Should such a time come all will be lost. Then indeed we shall be living in bankruptcy and hope will die in our hearts.
Golden seeds waiting to be sowed
For the first thing man must do if he wants to raise himself out of this sterile life is to open his heart to the golden seed which God's angels are waiting to sow in it.
And one other thing; he must himself throughout these grey days go forth as a bringer of good tidings. There is so much despair that cries out for comfort; there is so much faint courage that needs to be reinforced; there is so much perplexity that yearns for reasons and meanings.
Reaping the fruits of divine seeds
God's messengers, who have themselves reaped the fruits of divine seeds sown even in the darkest hours, know how to wait for the fullness of harvest. Patience and faith are needed, not because we believe in the earth, or in our stars, or our temperament or our good disposition, but because we have received the message of God's herald angel and have our selves encountered him.
Trial of Fr Alfred Delp SJ
The example of the life and death of Fr Alfred Delp SJ and his writings continue to help many Prepare the way of the Lord.
Handel's Messiah begins with the the opening verses of today's First Reading (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11), adapted from the Authorized (King James) Version:
Tenor Recitative. — Isaiah 40:1-3
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Tenor Air — Isaiah 40:4
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.
Chorus — Isaiah 40:5
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
The first video above features Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez. The second features Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, based in Toronto.