Of course, Santa Claus isn’t the only figure whose annual appearance heralds the coming of Christmas. As she always does on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, the Church introduces us to the mysterious figure of John the Baptist, who comes out of the desert each Advent proclaiming: “Prepare the way of the Lord” [Luke 3:4; Isaiah 40:3].
John the Baptist is indeed a most mysterious figure, appearing briefly at the beginning of Jesus’ public life, then quickly getting himself arrested and executed. All four Gospels mention John in connection with the beginning of Jesus’ public life, but Luke’s Gospel links John and Jesus not only as adults but at the beginning of their lives as infants. So far, I have found only one reference to John the Baptist in Isaac Hecker’s published writings. Eight months after becoming a Catholic (so long before he founded the Paulists), Hecker wrote in his Diary [April 2, 1845]: “We have much to learn before we know all that union with God means … Alas how few live solely for God – Mary – John the Baptist – these from their birth were consecrated to his work alone.” That’s the emphasis in Luke’s story of John’s consecration as priest and prophet from Day 1 - how John was by birth a Jewish priest, summing up and fulfilling all that the Old Testament was about, and a prophet, going before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare a people fit for the Lord [Luke 1:17; Malachi 3:23-24].
But how to prepare a people fit for the Lord? How do we prepare for the Lord?
The Church this year reserves the specifics of John's teaching for next Sunday. The focus today is on John himself and the spirit of his message. What one notices immediately is the special solemnity of the Gospel's language - the style of an official imperial proclamation, complete with the names of the reigning emperor and his representatives. That's Luke the historian, telling us who, what, when, and where - situating John's story in the larger sweep of human history.
All of this suggests that, however out-of-the-way the Jordan Valley may seem to us (despite its regular prominence in the news of the world), the real stage on which John's solemn pronouncement is being proclaimed is not some far-off desert oasis but at the very center of society - symbolized in the Gospel by that list of names of the emperor and his representatives. As Hecker famously said, years late in 1863: "Our age lives in its busy marts, in counting-rooms, in work-shops, in homes, and in the varied relations that form human society, and it is into these that sanctity is to be introduced." [The Saint of Our Day]
Apparently, the geographical desert was just John's starting-point - as it had been Israel's starting-point way back when. Rather than remain in the wilderness, the word of God takes John out of the desert and into the world. God's word wants to be heard - by everyone, where people actually are. In the words of the prophet Isaiah that Luke quotes: all flesh shall see the salvation of God [Isaiah 40:5].
For most of us, preoccupied as we inevitably are with our busy day-to-day lives and our here-and-now concerns, John the Baptist reminds us what Advent and Christmas are all about - God's word's active movement into our world. Isaiah said all flesh shall see the salvation of God, but in John that future is already happening in the present. And, as in Isaiah's day and as in John's, there are certainly plenty of valleys to be filled and mountains and hills to be leveled in our lives.
Advent, as we are always being told, is all about waiting and eager expectation. But waiting for what, exactly? Surely not just for Santa Claus! For Christ? Yes, for Christ - but surely not for Christ to be born! That happened a long time ago in Bethlehem. Otherwise, we wouldn't be praying here in this church today! For the third time today, let me quote our Paulist founder Isaac Hecker: Christ has come. Christ is here, now upon earth. Christ ever abides with men according to His word. What the age promises men is the rending asunder the clouds of error which hinder them from seeing that Christ is here. What the age promises and men most need is the light to enable their eyes to see that the Incarnation involves Christ’s indwelling presence in His Church acting upon man and society through her agency until the consummation of the world. [The Church and the Age, 1887]
Like the first coming of Christ, which John proclaimed way back then, the day-in, day-out, here-and-now, coming of Christ, which the Church lives all year long, invites a convinced and committed response on our part. That kind of response can only be sustained when we become convinced, as St. Paul so clearly was, that the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus [Philippians 4:7]
Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 9, 2012.