I know what you’re thinking right now: “A reading from the book of the prophet Baruch! How extraordinary!” It’s true; we heard from the prophet Baruch in our first reading today, and this is the only time outside the Easter Vigil Mass in which we hear from him. So, that is pretty special!
This special reading from Baruch kind of has the theme of taking a road trip – or, maybe more like a road journey. Roads in the ancient world were not that good, and whenever a king set out to visit some distant part of his kingdom with his retinue, preparations would be made in advance to improve the road so he could travel more smoothly and easily: some of the high points would be leveled and some of the low points would be filled in, to make his journey as smooth as possible.
We hear this idea of a road being smoothed out for the journey of a king in our Gospel reading as well, but I will come back to that. The road spoken of by the prophet Baruch, however, is for the people of Israel, who have been called by the Lord to return to their homeland. So in this reading, the people of Israel, as God’s chosen people, are essentially considered to be royalty. The history of the Jewish people was marked by two major exoduses: the first one from slavery in Egypt, when Moses led them to the Promised Land, and the second one coning centuries later, returning from exile in Babylon. By the time of Christ, although Jews had again been living in Palestine for a centuries by that point, because there had been periods of persecution throughout those years, Jews had dispersed throughout the Roman Empire, and there were communities of Jews scattered in various places like Alexandria in Egypt and Rome. But roads in the Roman Empire were actually pretty good, so if they wanted to, they could travel back to Palestine, their Promised Land, relatively easily.
So the problem was really not so much a lack of roads. Israel’s exile as understood by the prophet Baruch and at the time of Christ was therefore not so much a physical exile from the Promised Land, but a spiritual exile away from God caused by their sins. So the road talked about by Baruch was of course not a physical road that God had ordered to be built to bring the Jews back to the Promised Land, but rather the spiritual road of repentance which was their true route back to dwelling with God.
We too are called to travel this spiritual way of repentance. Sin separates us from God; it exiles us from Him. When we lead lives of sin, we drift further and further away from God. And we can end up in a very strange, foreign land, apart from God. But God always calls us back out of the exile of sin to return to Him. And the way back to Him of course is the way of repentance.
Repentance means first having an awareness of our sins. I think it’s certainly possible to be so far removed from God that we might not even be aware of our sins and our need for repentance – although I also think that, on some level, perhaps deep down, we sense that things are amiss; that we are off track. But regardless, first we have to reach an awareness that we are sinners and are in need of God’s forgiveness. And then we have to have contrition, or sorrow for our sins, for having offended God and separated ourselves from Him. And then we have to make the resolution to try to do better: to identify those things, those habits, those relationships that keep us separated from God, and to strive to remove them from our life. But it’s not just about the bad things we ought to give up; it’s also about the good things we need to add to our life. So we also have to resolve to actively follow the Lord, to spend time with Him each day in personal prayer, to strive to love and serve Him by loving and serving the people He has put into our lives, to study and learn more about our faith. All of this constitutes the way of repentance, the road that leads us back to the Lord.
But the Lord also comes to us, as we heard in our Gospel reading. Luke writes about the John the Baptist, the last of the prophets of the Old Covenant, and he situates him within a very specific historical context: he lists who the main political and religious leaders in Israel were at the time that John the Baptist first appeared in the wilderness: Pontius Pilate and Herod, Annas and Caiaphas, who all show up later in the Gospel, at the time of Jesus’ passion. When John the Baptist appears, he travels throughout the region of the Jordan River, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” And then Luke quotes from the prophet Isaiah, thereby identifying John the Baptist with the prophet foretold long ago by Isaiah, as the voice who would cry out: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill made low.”
Jesus of course is a king – THE KING, whose feast as Sovereign King we celebrated a couple weeks ago. And so John the Baptist call sthe Jews to prepare for Jesus’ coming by preparing a road for him to travel on. So even as we are called to return to Jesus, he is also coming to meet us. And we prepare the road for Him – we smooth it out, level out the mountains and fill in the valleys – by preparing ourselves spiritually – preparing our hearts through repentance.
As I said last week, Advent should primarily be a time of spiritual preparation for the Lord. And a big part of that preparation should involve repentance. Like Lent, Advent is an excellent time to avail ourselves of the beautiful sacrament of reconciliation that God in his love and mercy has given us. The elements of repentance that I mentioned earlier are all included in it: first we have to have an awareness of our sins, of our need for God’s mercy, which is the examination of conscience we ought to do beforehand. Then we should have sorrow for our sins, or at the very least the desire to have sorrow for our sins, which we express in the Act of Contrition. Finally we ought to resolve to do better, what is known as a firm purpose of amendment. Obviously if we go to confession without any plan to change anything and to just go back and commit the same sins, there’s something deficient and lacking in our confession. It’s one thing to go to confession knowing that it’s very likely that we will be tempted and fall back into the same sin(s), and it’s quite another to go to confession planning on committing the same sins, so at the very least we need to resolve to do better and to take action to try to avoid in future those situations that are dangerous for us to be in.
And in this sacrament, Jesus comes to us. Through our repentance, we have prepared the way for him, and he will surely come. It is Jesus who hears the confession of our sins; it is Jesus who gives us counsel, albeit through the sometimes stumbling words of the priest; and it is Jesus who forgives us when the priest prays the prayer of absolution.
Although it was over 2000 years ago that John the Baptist lived and traveled around the region of the Jordan River calling the Jews to repentance to prepare the way of the Lord, he continues to call us now and his message remains the same. He still urges us to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts, for Jesus is coming again.