Gospel reflection for Dec. 6, 2020, Second Sunday of Advent

“Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” This citation from the prophet Isaiah easily and quickly became associated with the ministry of John the Baptist. Here John is seen as the so-called precursor of the Messiah – the one who foretells and foreshadows the incarnation and the paschal mystery through his life and preaching. Even his own death – martyred as the prophets of old for his faithfulness to the covenant – serves as a sign of the Crucifixion of Jesus. As the last of the prophets of the Old Law, he stands poised and ready to both receive and announce the New Law.

John emerged in the Judean wilderness and proclaimed a Baptism in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom of God. While they may well have missed the scope of the Scriptural symbolism present in going into the wilderness, the people saw in John a prophet much like those of the more ancient days.

John’s role in preparing the way for the Lord does not, however, end with him. Indeed it is a mission taken up by the apostles as, after Pentecost, they went forth from Jerusalem and proclaimed the Gospel to “the ends of the earth.” While the Lord Jesus had certainly come and completed his mission he laid on the shoulders of his disciples – of the Church – the completion of that mission and in preparing the world for the eventual end of times, and his second coming.

As we live our own lives of discipleship, ministering to the world in which we live, it has been easy to be complacent in both living that call and in preparing the world for the coming of the Lord.

The call of the prophet Isaiah, which we hear in the First Reading, has a slightly different nuance of meaning than does the interpretation of that text in Mark’s Gospel. Isaiah emphasizes the voice crying out to restore the wilderness, to make a straight highway for the Lord in the desert. The Baptizer is seen as a voice crying in the wilderness. There, in the wilderness, John cries out that the path for the coming of the Lord needs to be prepared – not a physical highway – but the purification of the hearts and minds of the people so that they are ready.

While the ancient people, even the Israelites, viewed the wilderness with fear and uncertainty, the early Christians, perhaps inspired by Jesus going to the wilderness to pray, took on a different view of wilderness. Thus, during the days of the persecution of the early Church many found refuge in the desert wilderness where they waited, prayed, and prepared for the day when they could boldly proclaim the coming of the Lord.

The earliest monks lived in the deserts. The lives of many saints were forged there, and many who desired to repent from their earlier sinful lives, often took to the desert for penance.

In our day it seems that we are being driven, at least metaphorically, into the wilderness. The world has grown weary of the Gospel and the demands of discipleship. We are seeing a shift from a world that no longer seeks the Lord, seeks its own power and authority, to a world which is growing openly hostile to the proclamation of the Gospel. It is not enough to stop listening to the Word. The world seems to now to want to silence the Word.

Yet, today, many of us live in fear of the wilderness. Most of us have found a comfortable life of compromise with the world. We see that among our politicians, and we even seem to see that among the shepherds of our Church. It is easier to live in the comfort zone of ambiguity than to learn how to live in the wilderness.

While we do not often think of deserts as places of refreshment and renewal it is precisely there that the encounter with the Lord is at its purest and most invigorating. John knew that when he went to the wilderness. Jesus, knew that when he went into the desert to pray. The early Church recognized that as they grew in their relationship with the Lord in the deserts. We often fail to remember is that the Church actually survives and, even, thrives in the wilderness. It is there that the Church is most at home. It is in the wilderness that we prepare for the coming of the Lord.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.