Monday, December 10, 2007

"a voice cries out!"---from Raniero Cantalamessa's reflection on the 2nd Sunday of Advent

[Raniero Cantalamessa is the Pontifical Household preacher.]

In the Gospel for the second Sunday of Advent Jesus does not speak directly to us but his precursor, John the Baptist. The heart of the baptist's preaching is contained in that phrase of Isaiah that he powerfully repeats to his contemporaries: "The voice of one crying out in the desert, make straight his paths!"

Isaiah, to tell the truth, said: "A voice cries out: in the desert prepare the way of the Lord" (Isaiah 40:3). It is not, therefore, a voice in the desert, but a way in the desert. The Evangelists, applying the text to the baptist who preached in the desert of Judaea, modified the punctuation, but without changing the message's meaning.

Jerusalem was a city surrounded by desert: In the East the road, as soon as it was traced out, was easily erased by the sand blown by the wind, while in the West it was lost in the rugged terrain that sloped downward to the sea. When a procession or an important person had to come to Jerusalem it was necessary to go out into the desert to make a less provisional road; brush was cut away, holes were filled, obstacles were flattened, bridges were repaired. This is what was done during Passover, for example, to receive the pilgrims from the Diaspora. This is what inspired John the Baptist. Someone who is greater than everyone is about to come, he cries, "he who must come," the desired of the nations: A road must be made for him in the desert so that he may arrive.

But here is the leap from metaphor to reality: This path is not made on land but in the heart of every man; it is not built in the desert but in one's life. To build it there is no need to engage in material labor but in conversion. "Straighten the pathways of the Lord!" -- this command presupposes a bitter reality: Man is as a city invaded by the desert; he is closed in on himself, in his egoism; he is like a castle with a moat and the drawbridges all raised.

Worse: Man has complicated his ways with sin and he remains all tied up inside as in a labyrinth. Isaiah and John the Baptist speak metaphorically of ravines, mountains, twisted roads and impervious places. We just need to call these things by their real names, which are pride, sloth, selfishness, violence, cupidity, falsehood, hypocrisy, impudence, superficiality, drunkenness of every sort. (You can be drunk not only on wine or drugs but also on your own beauty, intelligence or yourself, which is the worst drunkenness!) We immediately grasp that this discourse concerns us as well; God's salvation waits on and seeks out in this situation every man.

Straightening a path for the Lord, thus, has a very concrete meaning: It means reforming our lives, converting. In the moral sense the hills that must be made low and the obstacles that must be removed are the pride that leads us to ruthlessness and to be without love for others, the injustice that deceives our neighbor, perhaps adducing specious pretenses to mollify and compensate for silencing our conscience, to say nothing of rancor, revenge, betrayal of love. The valleys to be filled in are laziness, apathy, lack of self-control, every sin of omission.

The word of God does not burden us with duties without at the same time giving the assurance that he will do together with us what he commands us to do. God, says the prophet Baruch, "has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground, that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God" (5:7). God makes low, God fills up, God builds the road; our task is to assent to his action, remembering that, as Saint Augustine says, "he who made us without our help, will not save us without our help."

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