Advent is an odd sort of beginning for the liturgical year. In one respect , it is the beginning of the story of Jesus, starting with his conception and St. John the Baptist’s preaching as a forerunner of Jesus, but in another respect, Advent is thought to be about the end of the story, the end of the world with the “second coming” of Jesus. Or is it? John the Baptist is a transitionary character who points to a great good God will do without knowing what it is going to be. Might the “end” of the story really be another transition? Malachi’s image of God being like a refiner’s fire (Mal. 3:2) sounds ominous and violent, a perfect image for God burning up the world in a fit of anger. But a refiner’s fire is not destructive; it is constructive, even healing. As a refiner’s fire restores metals to their best condition, God’s refining fire purifies the sons of Levi so that they can offer their sacrifices. The refining fire is not an ending but a new beginning. In what other ways might the ministry of John the Baptist be a new beginning for us today?
Luke has John begin his preaching with a quote from Isaiah which stands by itself with no elaboration. John’s quote features the leveling of valleys and mountains in order to “prepare the way of the Lord.” The image of leveling can be threatening as it calls up fears of violent revolutionaries leveling everything to the ground out of anger and resentment. But this is not the kind of leveling Isaiah and John are envisioning. Isaiah was proclaiming the leveling of valleys and mountains in order to remove the obstacles between Babylonia and Jerusalem so that the Jews could return safely to their homeland. The way to prepare for the Lord, then, is to remove obstacles that we put between each other. In an online discussion of this reading, it was suggested that one way we smooth the way for others is to create barrier-free access for handicapped people although it was noted that we still have more progress to make since the distance of a barrier-free route can be quite extensive. In any case, this image gives us a small parable of the greater project of removing obstacles placed in the paths of the helpless. One way to do this would be to pass legislation that makes voting easier for people instead of harder. On paper or in a spoken sermon, removing barriers may sound like a calm action, but in reality, we are, first of all, removing obstacles in ourselves that cause us to stumble in the way of the Lord. Since we are likely to find that many of these obstacles have been mistaken for parts of ourselves instead of invasive infections, removing these obstacles may well feel like being refined by fire. Another way to say the same thing is to note that the Way of the Lord is from Empire whether in the household or a nation-state (Babylon) to Jerusalem, the freedom of a new beginning of life without obstacles between each other and God. Hence the importance of Luke meticulously listing the imperial rulers three times in the first three chapters of his Gospel.
In parallel to John’s introducing his ministry with an otherwise unelaborated quote from Isaiah, Luke has Jesus inaugurate his ministry with another quote from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” We do well to place these two quotes side by side as they add up to a fuller program of preparing the way of the Lord by freeing the oppressed from the obstacles we place before them..
In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist famously said of his relationship with Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3: 30) As my confessor of many years reminded me often, we must be like John the Baptist: decreasing so that Christ may increase within each of us. Letting Christ increase in us, of course has us decreasing ourselves by removing the obstacles in ourselves so as to prepare the way of the Lord.