(John the Baptist) went throughout (the) whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’ (Luke 3:3-6)
For some reason I have found myself doing a lot of apologizing lately. So much so, that I have felt compelled to reflect on the phenomena. Two possibilities emerge: either I have been acting more rashly than usual lately, or else the Lord is giving me some new illumination on the effects my words and actions are having on others. If it is the latter, then comes the horrifying thought that I have habitually acted in ways that are arbitrarily hurtful to others. Mercy!
“Every mountain and hill shall be made low.” As I read the above gospel reading, I begin to realize that these humiliations may be meant to form part of my “fast of St. Martin”**. The mountains of my pride and the hills of my arrogance are being laid low, one at a time. Gee, I wonder how many there are?
As painful and humiliating as the process is, I must be grateful to God for the grace of it. The more the rough ways of my selfishness are made smooth, the more comfortable a resting-place will my heart be for the Prince of Peace when he comes. I suppose it is Mary’s doing. As I prepare to renew my consecration to her on December 12, I can imagine her making ready the poor and lowly manger of my heart to receive the Infant King. Her loving care for my miserable soul dazzles like the star of Bethlehem. Who can fathom her love for us and for all she does to make us ready to receive her Son?
I am reminded of an Advent experience a few years ago. It was a time of great personal trial for me. Our business was failing and the future seemed far from certain. It was at this very low point of my life, during Advent, that God withdrew from me any smidgen of evidence that he was there. I had no comfort. Prayer was a chore. I felt heavy. It was a feeling that went beyond the circumstances of my life. Spiritually speaking, it was a dark night.
There was one prayer I prayed over and over, but even that I prayed without feeling. It was from Psalm 116, vs 10: “I trusted, even when I said, ‘I am sorely afflicted.'” It was a prayer of the will, not the heart. But it was all I could muster, and I clung to it.
It was a long, dry Advent for me. I could not look forward to Christmas in any way. When I went to confession, even though I had not told the priest about my darkness, he made this comment out of the blue, “I see a baby. Why don’t you invite the Infant Jesus into your heart this Christmas.”
I did not give his words much thought. They were far too simplistic for what I was going through. Then, the BSP newsletter came out. In Bruce’s column, lo! and behold, he also encouraged us to invite the Infant Jesus into our hearts at Christmas.
Okay,okay, I’ll do it, I thought. Something simple can always be tried, I suppose. But, like Naaman*, I didn’t hold out much hope.
I dragged myself to Christmas Eve mass even though I had no heart for it. After communion I decided to try the “simple thing”. I invited the Infant Jesus into my heart. At that very moment, the darkness lifted. The Light was back! I could not believe or understand it, but there it was! My life circumstances had not changed, but my Jesus was back in my heart! With unprecedented joy my heart sang, “Glory to God in the highest! And peace to his people on earth!” My prayer of trust had been answered most spectacularly in my very own Christmas miracle!
If I were to draw a single lesson for penitents from these Advent experiences it would be to encourage all of us to remain docile to whatever the Lord or his Mother ask of us during Advent. As penitents we have a special role to play in making straight the way of the Lord. Let us not begrudge Our Lord and Our Lady anything they ask, but offer it all up for the forgiveness of sins and for the conversion of sinners.
May our Advent sacrifices make straight the way of the Lord, so that all flesh may see the salvation of God this Christmas. May the Infant Jesus dwell in every heart.
(* Naaman – see 2 Kings 5:1-14)
(**Fast of St. Martin – in the BSP we have a 40 day pre-Christmas fasting period that begins after the Feast of St. Martin of Tours.)