“...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around 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 out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord...’”
How does one prepare the Way of the Lord?
We know how to prepare, say, cakes - goodness knows this group knows that! (And I’m grateful.) We know - or hope we know - how to prepare for exams, studies. A good essay is prepared with research or an outline. Ideally both, I suppose, but let’s not be picky. One prepares for a wedding with the help of friends, maybe a wedding coordinator, photographer, priest, and caterer. Cold weather is prepared for with a down jacket, and something substantial to cover the ears. My grandpa always swore by good socks. Game day preparations can differ greatly, depending on the sport, one’s mental approach, and whether one’s preparation is as athlete (warm-up and prepare the body) or as spectator (warm up the nacho cheese). We are endlessly engaged with all kinds of daily preparations, sometimes to our soul’s exhaustion. And even here, the simple preparation of ceasing preparations, requires toothbrush and floss before going to bed.
John has come to prepare the way. He cries out to us, too: prepare the Way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
And I wonder how one does this.
I wonder about the various understandings, spoken or otherwise, that direct (for example) our Christmas preparations. In my family growing up, the season of Advent was greatly revered. No Christmas songs until Christmas, or until Mom put on Bing Crosby while dad was out running errands. On the whole, this approach meant that we mostly got ready for Christmas by not getting ready for Christmas. The not getting ready was the way we got ready; the not preparing was the preparing. It was all very Zen.
Of course, it’s not that we didn’t get ready at all; rather, in bold defiance of society’s worship of efficiency, productivity, and speed, my family taught me that, in some things, at least, timing matters and some matters take time; moreover, time and patience bring with them the humbling acknowledgement that we do not control God.
So the apparent tension of Advent - between waiting on the one hand and preparation on the other - can, perhaps, be held together. Expectant mothers, for example, know the truth, the secret, that the preparation is the waiting, the emptying; making room, physical space - like nurseries - and also temporal space, like stripped-down schedules that, while not neglecting life’s other commitments, are simple, bare, and expecting interruption. Preparation is making room for that for which one waits.
This is why, when John the Baptist comes preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins, so many Israelites flock to him, repent, and ask to be opened to the coming of God - because the preparation of repentance is a powerful kind of emptying that can open one’s eyes to the salvation of God.
‘...the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'
A friend told me about his recent trip to Uganda; he had been honored to preach at a service of baptism and confirmation. The bishop stood up and invited those who would like to be baptized and/or confirmed to meet him in front of the altar. Several dozen young teenagers rose to meet him. “You are saying ‘yes’ to Jesus,” the bishop observed. “Tell me,” he said, “in order to say ‘yes’ to Jesus, to what are you saying, ‘no’?”
Now, one could read this invitation as a simple retread of pietistic moralism, but I think that would be a mistake, to miss the larger challenge. It is not just bad sins or habits we put down in preparing for Christ; it is everything that, once set down, frees our lives to receive him. Put differently, Christians have no grounds for discerning good or bad habits apart from the measure of life lived with Christ.
I think, then, we are finally left with this question: What does life lived with God look like? This is why Advent begins with John, with Israel, the people of God struggling to live with God. Advent invites us to enter Israel’s struggle; to consider an intimacy with God closer than what we were initially prepared to take on. There’s that word again: prepare.
How does one prepare the Way of the Lord?
Preparation: not being asked to do more; maybe being willing to do less or to do what you are doing more slowly; making physical and temporal space; John asking us to re-envision all of our doings as preparation for - and eventual participation in - the three-fold mystery we don’t yet know: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
I wonder if you are among those whose preparation this Advent would be blessed by the emptying, the holy space-making, of repentance. I wonder if there are things weighing heavily on you for which the ear of a priest, spiritual director, or holy friend, listening on behalf of God, would aid your preparation, make room for his coming. I wonder if a part of your heart aches in a good way at the thought of the relief this might bring. I wonder if instead you are mindful of a particular relationship into which you might speak your desire for forgiveness.
I wonder also - as one preparing - how slowly you are willing to linger through the story of God this Advent. I wonder what room might open in you, simply walking, slowly through the pages, the landscape of shepherds, stars, camels, and kings until the story becomes alive and wild and strange. Words that you had not noticed the first time reframing your second reading. Preparing your third reading. Anticipating your fourth. Just of Luke’s first two chapters. I wonder if the commitment to memorize - carry in your person - a small portion of the story would open in your person a place for the One whose coming we prepare. Preparation is making room for that for which one waits.
John went into all the region around 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 out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord...’”