‘Prepare the way’: What does this mean?

What if John the Baptist were standing before us this morning? What would he say? The same words which he so powerfully spoke to the people he met as he traveled "throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."

His message to them and to us is: "Prepare the way of the Lord," words echoing the proclamation spoken by the prophet Isaiah centuries before John the Baptist.

Yes, we are being urged, kindly yet firmly, to prepare for an encounter with Jesus Christ. Of course, we immediately think of Christmas when we celebrate the coming of the Lord Jesus, His birth, among us. However, let me express this more accurately. We are being urged, kindly yet firmly, to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ within the Community of His Disciples, the Church, because this relationship with Jesus within His Church actually began when we first met Him in the Sacrament of Baptism.

From that first encounter with Jesus Christ, God has intended that our relationship with the Lord Jesus within the Community of His Disciples keeps on growing, that is, continues to develop.

After all, this is what living our faith is really all about. Living our faith is basically our striving, day in and day out, to be deepened, through God's grace, in an intimate, deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ within the Community of His Disciples, the Church. Only then, do daily prayer; sacramental receptions, especially the Sacrament of Penance regularly, and the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist at least once each week on a Saturday evening or Sunday; observing the moral law; and charitable outreach, even when it is sacrificial; only then do these begin to make sense within the context of a relationship with Jesus Christ.

However, we are imperfect and so our response in faith to Jesus Christ, the One Savior of the world, does not occur in a straight, linear, unswerving direction. Yes, we often cooperate with God's grace, but, regrettably, we can also forget our first fervor in wanting to be and to act more like Christ. We stay "at the outskirts" of what could be a dynamic, life-giving relationship with the Lord Jesus within His Church. In fact, we sometimes say "no" to what God asks of us, so we sin. Is not that why, at every Mass, we begin by acknowledging our sins: "I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do"?

Nonetheless, our God never gives up on us! In His faithful and unconditional love for us, He arranges, through human beings and specific circumstances, a way to come back to Him, to begin again in deepening our relationship with His Son, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ within His Church.

So, for example, one way is a new Church Year, which begins with the Advent Season. We are being given a whole new year, from December 2, to grow more in love with Jesus Christ, within the Community of His Disciples, our brothers and sisters in the faith.

Moreover, through the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, we are also given the Year of Faith, which began on October 11. As our Holy Father stated, this Year of Faith "is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world" (cf. Porta Fidei, n. 6). Its goal is to "make our relationship with Christ the Lord increasingly firm, since only in him is there certitude for looking to the future and the guarantee of an authentic and lasting love" (cf. Ibid., n. 15).

To repeat, imagine John the Baptist proclaiming to us here and now: "Prepare the way of the Lord." The way lies through our hearts. In fact, living in a deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ within the Community of His Disciples the Church is truly a matter of the heart. After all, the heart is a symbol of the total human person.

So, what is in our heart? If the way to a deeper relationship with Jesus lies through the heart, are there obstacles that hinder our path towards Him? Are there barriers, stumbling blocks, boulders? If so, what are their names?

To be realistic, the obstacles to an ever deepening relationship or union with Jesus Christ within the Church will vary for each one of us. I propose some examples and only that. The obstacle may be "being too busy" - so, "right now, I don't have the time for you, Lord." Or, it could be a poor self-image: "I'm not good enough and I'll never be." Or, it could be the seeming inability to accept God's forgiveness: "I've done wrong and how can I be forgiven?" Or, it may be a false sense of being independent and self-sufficient: "I'll do it my way and that is fine by me." Or, it may be apathy: "I don't care anymore." Or, it may be fear: "I'm afraid of what You ask of me, Lord."

In addition to any or some of these more immediate obstacles, could the barrier be a lack of understanding more fully who the Lord is and His role in our lives? If so, would not a slow but ongoing reading and reflection on the Catechism of the Catholic Church be the right direction to take, beginning this Advent? Or, the DVD series called Catholicism by Father Robert Barron: could this be the vehicle for further understanding and ongoing formation? Whatever the obstacles may be to preparing the way of the Lord, to allowing Him to deepen our union with Him within His Church, I urge us, first, to make time today to identify those obstacles or barriers in our lives. Secondly, I urge us to pray, that is, to seek honestly and humbly God's strengthening help, His grace, both to identify the barriers and to become aware of how to overcome them, to remove them. In other words, with His divine assistance, we pray for the grace to fill in the valleys, to make low the mountains, to make straight the winding paths, to make smooth the rough ways - in a word, how to return to the Lord without being hindered by obstacles. In fact, that is what we asked in our Opening Prayer or Collect: "Almighty and merciful God, may no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Savior."

So, as a practical suggestion, I propose this: 1) today, make time within your schedule to identify the barriers or stumbling blocks to an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus Christ within His Church rooted in faith; and 2) today, begin to beseech the Lord for the wisdom and insight to see clearly and the fortitude and strength to act wisely.

I close with this prayer for you, a prayer in which I echo my patron Saint Paul: "May the one who began a good work in you…continue it until the day of Christ Jesus…." Yes, "Prepare the way of the Lord," removing the obstacles and opening the door of our hearts to welcome Him!

© Arlington Catholic Herald 1970