This morning’s Gospel reading is Mark 1:1–8:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
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.”
John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
My memories of Christmases as a child are probably similar to many of yours. The anticipation becomes almost excruciating, and all of my young life seemed more and more centered on the waiting. School dwindled down, and our teachers likely grew ever more frustrated with our attention spans dwindling down even faster. All of our conversations with friends and family revolved around Christmas — the wish lists, the family plans, the two weeks off from school that our teachers may have appreciated even more than we did. We developed tunnel vision on that singular moment when we would wake up and rush out to see the gifts we had been given.
And, funny enough, my experience of Christmas has not really changed all that much over the years, even if its focus has. As a father and now a grandfather, I still get more and more excited and more and more focused on Christmas Day as it approaches (after grumbling about it until Thanksgiving), but now in anticipation of spending time with my family. The singular moment for me is when my granddaughters start opening up their gifts under the tree, although that comes later in the day as they have Christmas at home first with Mommy and Daddy. Christmas is still a season of anticipation, of watching for the gifts, except that I’m just more interested in seeing their delight. And I suspect that’s also very similar to your experiences, too.
Some of this is caused by crass commercialism, of course, but perhaps even that has a purpose. Advent is a season of anticipation, of waiting, and of preparation. The arc of salvation history, in which the whole world waited for deliverance from its sinfulness, hung upon the moment of Christ’s birth. The Lord had promised us salvation through His word, and His word would come to us in the flesh to guide us back to God’s mercy. The entire world — past, present, and future — hung upon this moment.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote about this anticipation in a famous homily that reflected the power of Mary’s “fiat” to the Annunciation:
Tearful Adam with his sorrowing family begs this of you, O loving Virgin, in their exile from Paradise. Abraham begs it, David begs it. All the other holy patriarchs, your ancestors, ask it of you, as they dwell in the country of the shadow of death. This is what the whole earth waits for, prostrate at your feet. It is right in doing so, for on your word depends comfort for the wretched, ransom for the captive, freedom for the condemned, indeed, salvation for all the sons of Adam, the whole of your race. …
See, the desired of all nations is at your door, knocking to enter. If he should pass by because of your delay, in sorrow you would begin to seek him afresh, the One whom your soul loves. Arise, hasten, open. Arise in faith, hasten in devotion, open in praise and thanksgiving. Behold the handmaid of the Lord, she says, be it done to me according to your word.
The whole world waited for its Savior, even through the despair of those times — perhaps especially so in that despair. Consider our first reading from Isaiah, a prophet whose ministry took place just before the fall of both Israel and Judah. Both had abandoned their trust in the Lord in favor of alliances and idolatry, choosing worldly power over the mission of salvation which had been entrusted to them. The northern kingdom of Israel would fall to the Assyrians shortly afterward, never to arise again; Judah would fall a little over a century later in three waves of exile and spend 70 years in captivity.
Yet even before the fall, Isaiah proclaims that Jerusalem would be redeemed and her guilt expiated. The arm of the Lord would transform the world, Isaiah promises:
Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins. …
Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.
Mark writes of John the Baptist’s preaching as another form of anticipation. He tells those being baptized to cleanse their sins that he himself is not the sign, but the sign of the sign. The time had come to repent, for “one mightier than I is coming after me,” John warns his pilgrims. The message was the same as Isaiah’s: “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”
This is our challenge at Advent — to remember both the preparation and the anticipation. We have waited ever since the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ for His return and the completion of the arc of salvation. Just as with the Israelites in Isaiah’s time and in the time of John the Baptist, we can lose sight of salvation and despair at the length of anticipation. Peter warns about that in his second epistle:
Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. …
Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.
Advent’s anticipation forms us in patience and in preparation. It is not for us to know the hour or the day. We are called to prepare the way of the Lord in our own hearts and to serve as examples of His peace for others. In that way, we can build a highway in the wasteland of a fallen world for the Lord, bringing many others into His path. We are called to feel the anticipation, but not to be overwhelmed by it. We put our trust in the Lord and yearn for His return, but we know that we shall see Him at the end. That is our faith, and that is our life.
May we all experience the joy and focus of that anticipation in this Advent season.
The front-page image is from the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. From my own collection.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.