When I hear the words in today’s Gospel column: “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” (Luke 3:5), I think of a pilgrimage trip from years ago. Several years ago, a small group of BC faculty went on the last 100 miles or so of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Every day we would walk about 12-16 miles, carrying everything that we had for our trips with us on our backs. It was hard work to walk that long. Most of us developed blisters and all of us had some sort of ache or pain. Every morning, one of the other faculty members who had done the walk many times would announce to the rest of us that the day ahead was not quite as hilly as the previous day had been. “This part is pretty level compared to yesterday,” he would say. Then we’d go out and find that while for a short part of the path, it might be true. Somehow there always seemed to be some kind of hill that went up and up and up and …..”It has a down eventually, doesn’t it?,” I would think ,while trying hard to pray and not to grumble to myself about my sore feet! Of course, eventually the way did get smoother and we were very grateful.
Now that some time has passed, I’ve come to realize that a good deal of lengthy travel in the ancient world was probably very much like my pilgrimage experience: hard work, mostly on foot. There were probably many people like me who wondered, when will this hill end? When do we get to the easier part? I can well imagine Isaiah, the prophet that Luke is quoting here, inspiring hope in people at his time, the way that my faculty colleague tried to encourage us: “Today, the path will become smooth and level. Yesterday was hard, but tomorrow will be an easier day!”
When we look at our world, problems of racism, the pandemic, concerns about the right treatment of immigrants, or the need to respect all people, there is no doubt that the road ahead has some uphill portions. But hope is necessary. In my classes recently, I had my students watch a video by Fr Michael Himes, on hope, and we briefly read Aquinas’s ideas about hope together. Hope, Fr Himes says, is different than optimism or mere wishful thinking. It is the belief that what we do matters and is meaningful even if tomorrow has challenges. Aquinas says that hope is the continued wanting or desiring of things not yet possessed. There is a spirit in hope of belief in the good and even belief in the basic goodness of other people. And so rather than give up desiring what we desire, we can ‘stay with’ our hope because of this sense that our words and our actions do matter.
Luke and the earlier prophets promised us that the road ahead was better ,not only because of WHAT we can hope for, but because of WHO we can hope for: Jesus. John the Baptist was the prophet in Luke’s time who pointed ahead to the coming of the Christ, to the coming of Jesus.
For us in our age, Jesus is already here. Jesus is with us in Eucharist and in the Scripture. Jesus is with us when we pray, and when we gather in community. God is already here. We don’t have to wait for our savior to be born. So what, then, is Advent about for us?
For me, Advent is about redirecting my own heart to Jesus and letting it be a time let God into my life more deeply. How can I also preach hope and comfort to others, for whom the road seems tough now, the way that God has given me hope and comfort in the past when life’s ups and downs were arduous?
For me, this means at least two things slowing down at one of the seasons when life is busiest. It also means “discerning what is of value,” a phrase that we hear in today’s reading from Philippians. Discerning requires choosing between different goods, and where to focus my energy, with hope. It means especially focusing on the love of God and the love of one another–a love where no one is excluded from kindness, care and justice.
Let’s use this Advent not to speed up life before Christmas, but to slow down, to prepare to let God “in” on our lives, and to join God in being hope and comfort to others, too, to work for justice hopefully, and to receive that hope from our God, who promises us that the way will be smoother ahead, because of Jesus’s love for us.