by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“A voice cries out: ‘In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low…then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all humankind shall see it together.’” Isaiah 40, 1-5, 9-11

“The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and on that day the heavens will vanish with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and all its deeds will be open to scrutiny…so do your best to be found living at your best in integrity, peace and holiness.” 2 Peter 3, 8-14

“John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of life-change, which leads to the forgiveness of sins.” Mark 1, 1-8

There is a clear link between the three readings of this second Sunday of Advent. They are all apocalyptic in style as they refer to the end times or to dramatic changes in world history. Moreover, they offer a lesson in the use of metaphors, signalling that they are not to be taken literally. For example, any of us who have been bush-walking or mountain-climbing will be familiar with the fact that gorges and steep hills are obstacles for climbers and walkers, slowing progress. Mark’s Gospel opens with a quote from chapter 40 of Isaiah, and it’s that very same passage which we hear in today’s first reading.

Using the metaphors of valleys and hills, both Isaiah and Mark were alerting their audiences to the obstacles that all of us human beings can create for ourselves, and which end up stifling us or preventing us from living up to our full potential. Neither Isaiah nor Mark were calling people to line up and publicly list their personal sins and failings. The Greek word that the Baptist used for “repentance” was metanoia, meaning a change of heart or mind-set. At the start of Lent or the beginning of a new year, we’re all used to making resolutions to change behavioural attitudes and actions that we recognise as unworthy of us. But our words and good intentions have to be met with changes of heart and action. It’s called conversion or transformation. Both Isaiah and John the Baptist were pointing out to their people that the quality of their lives together, that their relationships with one another, could improve if only they could raise their sights and actually change their outlook on life, acting with care compassion, justice and selflessness.

The piece we read from Isaiah today is well over 2000 years old and was intended to offer comfort and hope to a people that had long been living in exile ever since the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been overrun by the Assyrians and the Southern Kingdom by the Babylonians. What was left looked like the kind of devastation an apocalypse would leave behind. This theme is echoed in today’s second reading from Peter, which describes the day of the Lord or the end time as a moment when “the elements will melt away in the flames …and everything will be destroyed” (2 Peter 3, 10-11).

Isaiah was directing his words to a people who had lost everything and had been forced to live in exile in Babylon. Their nation had been obliterated, their king had been killed, their temple destroyed, and they were left wondering if they had a future. And Isaiah reached out to them with a message of hope, announcing that God still wanted them, even though they, themselves, had wiped their hands of God: “Take comfort, take comfort my people. I, your God still care for you. So, go out and tell this news to everyone”. Through Isaiah, God was proclaiming to the people that, even though things could not be worse, there would still be a tomorrow.

This message is very appropriate for the people of today’s world, as we try to come to terms with the devastation caused by a Covid virus that has claimed the lives of countless people and left those close to them in the depths of grief; and the devastation of civil strife that has created more refugees than our world has ever seen. We live in a world crying out for comfort and hope. That comfort and hope are to be found in the person of Jesus. As his followers, we cannot wave a magic wand to dispel the pain of those who are hurting, but we can be instruments of comfort and hope to those very same people. As we turn our attention in Advent to reliving the coming of God into our world in the person of Jesus, we are called to be hope and comfort to others by the way we live and engage with the hurting people around us, to reincarnate in action, the care, comfort and compassion that Jesus taught us. But that means shaking off some of our own complacency and self-interest.

Today’s gospel-reading is from the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel, the opening words of which are: “The good news of Jesus Christ begins here.” Then Mark immediately quotes Isaiah’s words about the arrival on the scene of John the Baptist: “Watch closely: I’m sending my preacher ahead of you: He’ll make the road smooth for you. Thunder in the desert! Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road smooth and straight! (Isaiah 40, 3-5).

John the Baptist ushered in a new beginning in the story of God’s love for the world. That new beginning would be brought about through people, ourselves included, who would embrace a life-change, a conversion of mind and heart, demonstrated in action. The second reading from Peter announced that such a life-change would be evidenced in our “holiness” – that is, living with integrity and putting God at the centre of our lives.

If we dare to look honestly at the state of our world, doing as Pope Francis calls to look closely at the signs of our times, I suggest that we are living in a world that is dying and, at the same time, longing to be reborn, to embrace a new way of living that respects all people and is involved in caring for our common home. The challenge for each of us in Advent is to invest ourselves in bringing new life to ourselves and others as we live with integrity, justice, compassion, tolerance, forgiveness and encouragement of others.

We still have the words of encouragement, comfort and hope proclaimed some 2500 years ago by Isaiah to a people who had lost everything, including hope. I wonder if, in 2000 years from now, there will be any record of what we have done to bring hope and comfort to our world, and to embrace authentic life-change for ourselves. Now, there’s a topic for vibrant discussion.