The readings from the Second Sunday of Advent present us with two of the major Advent characters: the prophet Isaiah, the source of several messianic prophecies, and John the Baptist, the one God commissioned “to prepare the way of the Lord” and “make straight his paths.” Indeed, the Gospel reading makes clear that John the Baptist fulfills what Isaiah wrote concerning the preparations for the coming of the Messiah.
Although Advent is not a penitential season as Lent is, John’s cry to prepare the Lord’s way does entail repentance. The word “repentance” translates metanoia, a word that literally means “change of mind.” One way that we can prepare for the Lord’s coming is to grow in understanding and wisdom. In fact, in the Opening Prayer of the Eucharistic Liturgy, we pray that “our learning of heavenly wisdom [may] gain us admittance to [Christ’s] company.”
Such heavenly wisdom is learned from Jesus himself, about whom Isaiah in the first reading prophesied, “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord.” Shortly after he was baptized in the Jordan River by John, Jesus described that event as an anointing (the word “Christ” means “anointed one,” that is, “the Messiah”) by the Holy Spirit, whose abiding presence empowered him to bring good news to the poor, freedom to captives, and sight to the blind (Luke 4:16-21)—in fulfillment of another Isaianic prophecy.
What wisdom and understanding does Jesus teach? Ways of thinking and values that turn upside down many of our values and standards of thinking. Jesus operates by a different calculus. For instance, he teaches that true greatness is achieved by child-like humility and serving others, especially those most in need.
It is surely no accident that, in the second reading, Paul declares that “Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness.” The word “minister” is diakonos, from which we get the word “deacon,” which fundamentally means “servant.” Paul’s statement that Christ became a “deacon” evokes Jesus’ self-description as one who “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And in giving his life in love, Jesus revealed the “truthfulness” of God, that God’s very being is Love (1 John 4:8).
In this connection, Jesus teaches that authentic power and authority are exercised in loving service, not in lording over others. That true freedom is expressed, not in insisting on one’s own rights and on being right, but in offering oneself to others and their needs. That one gains one’s life by giving it away in love. To say the least, the wisdom revealed by Jesus is truly a different kind of wisdom! But as Paul elsewhere observes, this wisdom—exhibited most dramatically in Jesus’ giving his life on the cross—though considered “foolishness” by the standards of the world, is wiser and more powerful than any human wisdom (1 Cor 1:18-25).
And so, one of the ways I can prepare the way of the Lord is to reflect honestly on whether or not my values reflect the wisdom revealed by Jesus. There can be things in my heart—pride, concern for recognition and the need to be right, seeking fulfillment in things that don’t satisfy—that need “smoothing away” so I can receive more easily Christ and his manner of living.
Another way in which we can prepare the Lord’s way is to heed Paul’s exhortation in the second reading to “welcome one another, as Christ welcomed you.” Among the early house churches of Rome, there were many divisions—rooted in ethnic and socio-economic differences, as well as varying religious attitudes and practices. Paul pleads for unity in the community of faith, a unity of love that bears witness to the Church as the Body of Christ.
The invitation to welcome others, as Jesus welcomed us, is as relevant today as ever. There are numerous peoples who feel excluded: immigrants, the chronically ill, and those who are regarded as “strangers” in various ways. By opening our arms in welcome, the Church can pave the way for healing and wholeness for peoples with whom Jesus identified so closely (Matt 25:31-46),
Yet another way to prepare the way of the Lord is, as the second reading points out, when all the members of our Church communities gather to give praise to God. The Church is most itself (i.e., realizing its true identity and function) when we come together in all our diversity and differences around the Eucharistic table to glorify and thank God, and to be nourished by Word and Sacrament. Through that nourishment, we are enabled to take on and embody “heavenly wisdom” in our lives.