Wednesday 7 December 2022

‘Make straight the way of the Lord’

John the Baptism was, without doubt, an extraordinary person. Pretty much everything about him was exceptional — even the food he ate and his weird garb marked him out from ‘normal’ people. As for his message, that too was unusual. There had not been a prophetic voice heard in Judea for several hundred years, and suddenly, there he was, shouting boldly his challenging call to repentance and change.

Fascinated by this strange figure, who chose the remote desert regions over the city centre for his stage, the people, including some Pharisees and Sadducees, flocked to hear him. They hadn’t gone to hear the wind in the reeds, they went to hear a man speak powerfully and prophetically, someone who didn’t mince his words, even about members of the royal family — which ultimately cost him his life.

And when asked whether or not he was the Messiah they were eagerly waiting for, he told them quite clearly that he was not, that he was merely a voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’. He told them that he was only a voice, nothing you could look at but something you listened to. His message was: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.

Of course, he was quoting Isaiah, a much earlier prophet, and claiming to be the one sent ahead of the long-expected Messiah, urging the people to clear the way ahead and straighten out the road, the Royal Highway. What sort of road was this meant to be? Where did it lead? Where was this King going to establish his Kingdom? When he came, the King would answer that question very clearly: ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. Therefore, the way that the Baptist sets about preparing the way is to appeal to the hearts of the people. ‘Repent, mend your ways, and come be baptised. Share your possessions with those in need. Those whose job is to collect taxes and rents, see to it that you exact no more than is just or due. You, soldiers, be content with your pay and stop throwing your weight around. And Herod, leaves your brother’s wife alone!’ In all this, John was seeking to ensure that the paths were being straightened out.

Two thousand years later, his message is still pertinent. Our own paths are not so straight nor always kept in best order — the road-menders are urgently required to make them viable. We are continually being tempted to cut corners, to be not quite as straightforward in our dealings with others; not quite straight in our speaking if we think we might lose the approval of others, whose good opinion we rather cherish; not quite so straight in our thinking if we fear the uncomfortable conclusions we might reach. In the Gospel somewhere, Our Lord warns us about taking our hand from the plough or looking back, lest the furrow we are busily ploughing is no longer straight. In making decisions, we have often to rely on our conscience, which isn’t so reliable if our consciences have become twisted and dulled. Moreover, we can even forget how to discern what is true, good or indeed beautiful, because we have allowed ourselves to compromise too readily and easily with the world. This is why we need Advent and to heed the voices of Isaiah and John the Baptist, before we can fully share in the real joy of Our Lady and the angels at Christmas, which will soon be upon us. Meanwhile, let’s continue our preparations, allowing the slightly hectoring voice of John the Baptist to keep us on our toes.

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