Friday, December 2, 2011

Prepare the Way of the Lord

Second Sunday of Advent Year B

"Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." The monumental feat which is implied by this text may be entirely lost on us unless we have travelled along one of these mountainous winding roads, especially those that cut across treacherous terrain. As we stand in awe of such magnificent engineering, a question often crosses our mind would be this, “How in the heavens did they manage to do this?!” Today, modern technology has vastly simplified the construction of tunnels, bridges and roads with the invention of dynamite, excavators, tractors, tunnel drills and other engineering equipment. Despite all the technological know-how and heavy machineries, any engineer or contractor would still tell you that it is anything but an easy feat. But now try to imagine the same feat accomplished by human hands with only the aid of axes, hammers and stone.

Understanding the biblical allusion, the historical context, and the phenomenal physical challenge of the project would help us understand and appreciate the call of John the Baptist in today’s gospel.

First, the passage is a quotation, with minor alterations, from the Old Testament. Although, he attributes everything to the prophet Isaiah, St Mark is actually quoting two different biblical references to speak of the ministry of John the Baptist and the content of his message. The first part of the prophecy which refers to the ministry of John the Baptist as the messenger is actually a paraphrase taken from Malachi 3:1 which speaks about the prophet Elijah returning to prepare the way presumably for the Messiah. Later, St Mark would provide a detailed description of the clothing and diet of John the Baptist which is almost identical with that of the prophet Elijah, the Tishbite, mentioned in the First Book of the Kings. With Elijah’s reappearance, the long awaited Messiah would not be too far behind. When that day finally arrives, Israel’s liberation and vindication would be at hand.

But it is the second part of the text when it speaks of the voice and the message announced that draws our attention to the preparation needed to welcome the Lord. Again here, we see another paraphrase of the Old Testament, in this case from Isaiah 40, which we had heard in today’s first reading. Isaiah 40 was written as a message of hope to Israelites and Judeans who were in exile in Babylon, promising them that they will return home to the Promised Land from their long exile, a journey that will take them over the desert sands. Thus at one level, it is message that promises liberation from captivity – good news that the Israelites who have lived as prisoners in exile will now finally experience freedom and be able to return to their beloved homeland. At a second level, it speaks of their foundational experience, liberation from slavery in Egypt and their journey in the desert for forty years under the guidance of the Lord.

But the text still has another older historical allusion. The idea is taken from the practice of eastern monarchs, who, whenever they entered upon an expedition or took a journey, especially through desert and unchartered territory, sent harbingers before them to prepare all things for their passage, and pioneers to open the passes, to level the ways, and to remove all impediments. This was usually done during times of peace. In times of war, the hazardous or difficult terrain often offered a natural defense or barrier against the enemy. The king or his country would not gain any advantage by remodeling the terrain to facilitate an easier passage. But during times of peace, especially after the king had won a great victory, his victory procession returning to his capital would be supplemented with an exaggerated ceremonial pomp and pageantry. It would be unsightly and unbecoming if the king had himself to maneuver across these natural barriers and obstacles. Thus, the leveling of the hills, the filling of the valleys and the straightening of the paths became symbolic of his victory not only over his enemies but also over the forces of nature. It was a great homecoming.

A well documented example of this monumental engineering feat is that of the funeral procession of Alexander the Great, whose body was transported in a golden pavilion pulled by sixty over mules from Babylon in the East to the distant oasis town of Siwa in Egypt in the West. Historians record that an army of craftsman, labourers and engineers had been sent ahead of the funeral cortege in order to ‘prepare the way’ that was befitting for a man, an emperor who had united the known world from the East to the West.

Having looked at both the scriptural and historical allusions, we still have to consider one last feature, which is the enormous physical challenge of the project. Why did Isaiah and later the gospel writers choose this imagery? It is apparent that these were not minor public works like the periodic repairs and maintenance conducted by our JKR. Rather, it involved reshaping the terrain on a monumental scale. Thus when both the Prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist made this call, it can only be understood as a call to re-landscape our lives. It is a call for radical conversion. This is reinforced by the image of the desert. The desert, in any event, can be a formidable foe. The desert changes anyone who dares to accept its challenge. The Israelites traverse the desert for 40 years after their departure from Egypt before they could arrive in the Promised Land. The 40 years did not only symbolised a whole generation, but a radical transformation of these people from being just slaves, no-people, a people without identity or nationality into God’s own people.

Thus, both the physical challenge of the project of landscaping and the desert imagery emphasises the extent of the change required to welcome the King. Conversion is anything but easy. Rearranging your furniture is much easier than changing persons. It is not enough to make cosmetic changes to our life, for example, stop or reduce your smoking; becoming a bit more patient with the people you live with, coming for Mass on Christmas Day, or making little changes here and there. In order to prepare for the coming of Jesus, our lives must undergo a deep and thorough conversion. It involves dying and being reborn. There is a need for repentance, a turning away from our sins, a rejection of our old way of life especially when that was leading us away from God.

Thus, the readings for us are a call to make preparation through repentance and conversion. We need to sincerely identify the obstacles that impede the coming of the Lord into our lives. Selfishness, sloth, greed, lust, vanity, indifference and sin marks the mountains, the valleys and the crooked ways which form an obstacle to Christ making his way into our hearts and into the world.

Today, these themes of liberation, peace, victory, homecoming and conversion converge in St Mark’s introduction to the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ. John the Baptist, the harbinger of the king, the new Elijah, the herald and forerunner of the Anointed one, appears on the scene to call for this radical and monumental work in preparation for the coming King. This time, it would be no ordinary mortal that we are awaiting for. It is no human king who would eventually witness the disintegration of his kingdom, as Alexander posthumously did. This is a king that could only be judged by radically different categories as John the Baptist pointed out – “One that is mightier than I is coming … I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Spirit.” So let us “prepare the way of the Lord, and make straight his paths” because our liberation is coming, he is the Prince of Peace and our Victorious King.

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