Second Sunday in Advent: walking along with way with John the Baptist and St. Paul

In today’s readings for the Second Sunday of Advent, we hear John the Baptist described  as one who prepared the way for God. Advent is a time of preparation for God, but one way to think about Advent is that it is not us, but rather God who is doing the work in us to make room for God’s own appearance. Luke’s gospel says, following the reading in Baruch (and a similar image in Isaiah),

“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.”
(Luke 3:5-6).

A couple of years ago, I went along with colleagues on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, on a long walk through small towns and a few cities in Spain to arrive at the Cathedral of St James. Each morning, a fellow faculty member who had done the trip before would encourage us and say, “This day ahead is not all that full of long climbs and descents. The way ahead is relatively smooth, compared to what we have traveled before.” But then many of us would discover that the road actually seemed to have a lot of climbs in it, far more than we had anticipated when training on the relatively flat roads in and outside of Boston!

It turned out, though, that my colleague was right: the road was relatively smooth. A different traveling companion, who took a group of students the next year, was able to report back to the rest of us that the part of the road that we had all traversed  as a group was pretty smooth, at least relative to other parts of the Way of St James even earlier, where she and her students began! What counts as a flat road and what is a steeper climb or descent, it turns out, is relative to how we see it.

This passage reminds me, at least, that God’s desire for us is not to have to earn, fight, or break our way into heaven. Our experience of our earthly pilgrimage may indeed be “up and down”, and subject to our own individual perceptions of what is easy or hard. but in all of it, God desires to ease our way forward, to encourages us and to lighten our load so that we can move forward.

But how do we find our way to the level path that God has set out for us, the “rough way made smooth,” when too often we seem to choose the way forward that is more rugged— or at least more conventional? Another way to put this question in this season of Advent is: what do we need to do, in order to follow Jesus on the gentler path that leads us back to his kingdom, a kingdom of love and peace in our communities, a place of harmony between God and ourselves, and between us and others in our larger community?

St Paul in the second reading gives us some indication of how to proceed. Paul says that his prayer for his friends is “that your love may increase ever more and more
in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value”  (Phil 1:9). Paul makes this claim: love informs how we see and what we know. Love helps us to decide what to prioritize, what counts. and who counts in our lives. Knowledge, not even the most sophisticated intellectual grasp of lofty matters, does not come first if what we mean by knowledge is merely book knowledge. Rather, the most important kind of knowledge is the kind of knowledge that teaches us to love, and how to build up a community of peace and justice.

In the Gospels, Jesus provides a model for what it means to love. Jesus does not fear being vulnerable with others. Though God, he will come to the world as an infant, tender, small, humble, and as vulnerable as any other baby. Jesus does not avoid working with or being attentive to those who are in need: those who are ill, poor, sinful, outsiders, marginalized in this world. Instead, Jesus welcomes them as those with whom he eats and those with whom he prays. Some, he even calls as disciples and apostles.

Jesus spends time in prayer, loving others and staying close to his Father, through prayer as well as more active forms of ministry.

Jesus tells those who are willing to listen, over and over again, “do not be afraid, ” because God delights in each one of us, as much as and even more so than the sweet sparrow, the elegant lily of the field, the lost sheep at the edge of the cliff.

When we let go of fear, anxiety, and false views of ourselves and others, then we make the way smoother for others and for ourselves, too, so that we can all live on a level plain together. Advent is a time of allowing God to smooth the way, to level the playing field, to remove judgment and to replace that judgment with love and kindness. How do we want to cooperate, and choose the smoother road today and in the week ahead?