Today's Gospel from Luke 3:1-6 quotes a most familiar Advent themed passage from the Prophet Isaiah, which somehow struck me as more relevant than ever before, as to where we find ourselves in the world:
"In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar’s reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the lands of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrach of Abilene, during the pontificate of Annas and Caiaphas the word of God came to John son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. He went through the whole Jordan district proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the sayings of the prophet Isaiah:
'A voice cries in the wilderness:
Prepare a way for the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley will be filled in,
every mountain and hill be laid low,
winding ways will be straightened
and rough roads made smooth.
And all mankind shall see the salvation of God.'"
I need to do the leveling, straightening and smoothing in my life. Obvious? You say? Certainly as concept, it is, but maybe I am the only one so thick-skinned as to balk at the Lord having His way with me through my genuine repentance, my embrace of the grace of Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
Apart from my own personal devotion and transformation into Christ, for my own sake and for the sake of the life of the world, this Second Sunday of Advent and the prophet Isaiah came home hard to me on the topic of welcoming the stranger in the face of the menace of Islamic and other terrorism. The other day at a reception, a lady shared with me her reservations about Pope Francis' formula for solving the refugee problem facing Europe, and not many hours later, a journalist shared with me his impatience with statesmen, politicians and churchmen, who are unwilling to get on board with Francis' program for reaching out and welcoming those in need.
At the very same time thinking about the Holy Year, the Year of Mercy which opens on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, I am thinking about the dynamics of the Holy Door, the Door of Mercy, which the Pope has already opened in Bangui and will open in St. Peter's on the day after tomorrow. It is certainly an image of Christ Who opens up to us and welcomes us in to Him, repentant and eager as we are. Vis à vis a hostile world, the door being opened represents an icon of what the Church, as People as Christ's Mystical Body, can be by way of an invitation and a challenge to others to come in and find light and life in the only One Who is Victor over sin and death, in Jesus True God and True Man.
The Isaiah (Isaiah 22:8-23) passage in the Office of Readings for today hits hard in this sense. Hits not others hard but rather catches us, God's children, straight between the eyes. It should ruffle the feathers of all in authority (people in roles of governance, politicians, teachers and professors) who turn their back on the common Christian patrimony of Western society:
"You turned your gaze that day to the armory of the House of the Forest.
You saw how many breaches there were in the Citadel of David. You collected the waters of the lower pool. You counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you pulled down houses to strengthen the wall. In the middle you made a reservoir between the two walls for the waters of the old pool. But you had no thought for the Maker, no eyes for him who shaped everything long ago.
The Lord, the Lord of Hosts, called you that day to weep and mourn, to shave your heads, to put on sackcloth; instead, there is joy and amusement, killing of oxen, slaughtering of sheep,
eating of meat, drinking of wine, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we may be dead.’
My ears have had this revelation from the Lord of Hosts:
‘Most certainly this sin will not be atoned for, until you die’ says the Lord, the Lord of Hosts.
Thus says the Lord, the Lord of Hosts: Now go to this steward, to Shebna, the master of the palace,
who is hewing a tomb for himself high up, carving out a room for himself in the rock, ‘What right have you here, and what relatives have you here for you to hew yourself a tomb in this place? See, the Lord hurls you down, down with a single throw; then with a strong grip he grips you, and he winds you up into a ball and hurls you into an immense country. There you will die, and there will be sent the chariots you were so proud of, you, the disgrace of your master’s palace.’ I dismiss you from your office, I remove you from your post, and the same day I call on my servant Eliakim son of Hilkiah. I invest him with your robe, gird him with your sash, entrust him with your authority;
and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the House of Judah. I place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; should he open, no one shall close, should he close, no one shall open. I drive him like a peg into a firm place; he will become a throne of glory for his father’s house."
Isaiah had very tough words for Jerusalem and Shebna, the master of the palace, for turning their backs on God and mounting their own defense against foreign invaders. Would that a prophet today would call us to task for our self-sufficiency and unbelief! Would that a prophet today would touch hard hearts, which not only reject Syrian or Latino refugees, but who scorn traditional marriage's openness to children, who do the equivalent of Shebna, who unmindful of his Maker, built a tomb for himself on high.
The Old Testament teaches mightily about a people unwilling to have God as their Lord, unwilling to follow after Him no matter what. The 50 year jubilees of Old Israel restored justice and personal dignity, freeing slaves and returning homesteads. It is the principle and the teaching from God which is of importance here. What should our year of mercy look like? So far I have seen precious little from crusading journalists which would point to the noble usages of the Old Testament rendered even more radical, raised up and nailed to the Cross with our Loving Savior.
The only "Get Out of Jail Free" card I am hoping to see out of this jubilee is hearts near and far touched and touched profoundly: children saved and raised lovingly, husbands and wives reconciled and wounds healed. In short, I pray for a vision of valleys filled in and mountains laid low, straight paths to a rugged manger bed and all for the Infant King. Cutting our losses and moving on does not fit the scenario and begs for us an end like that reserved for hard-hearted Shebna. We need fathers like Eliakim for God's people. The estrangement which has brought so much suffering on defenseless Christians must be countered by a new witness to the Crucified One. Our prayer for peace in this Year of Mercy is informed by our sincere proposal to repent and be reconciled with God and neighbor.
PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI