One could argue that our entire lives are similarly dichotomous — a dance between routine and preparation, and spontaneity and all that comes without warning. Advent is especially so.
Mark’s Gospel and the Second Sunday of Advent begin with Isaiah’s description of John the Baptist as “my messenger … who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Preparing the way of the Lord requires an understanding of both what the Lord’s ways are and what we should do with that knowledge.
John’s approach was to baptize with water and tell those he washed that, “He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie … will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
As righteous as John was in serving as an opening act for Jesus, and as familiar as he might have been with the prophets’ descriptions of the Messiah, it is difficult to imagine him not sharing in the perplexity of others concerning the arrival of the Christ for whom he had been readying a way. It is in Luke’s Gospel, after all, that John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Jesus’ response reveals a great deal about his way: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
In laying out his ministry to John’s disciples, Jesus points to those he places front and center time and time again, in his healings and in his preaching, in the Beatitudes and in Matthew 25: the hungry and thirsty, those who mourn, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted, strangers, the naked, the sick and prisoners. In other words, those who are poor, marginalized and cast aside.
Jesus’ special consideration for the underbelly of society is consistent and clear. And yet, two thousand years on, we remain hard of heart and slow to heed his words.
Jesus flips on its head every idea we are inclined to have of power and status and appropriate conduct for someone of high standing. He announces his reign and proceeds to befriend lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors. His sharpest reproaches are for the people with whom any other king would be most likely to rub elbows. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus makes it apparent that his is not a kingship of silver and gold or ostentatious prestige.
“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” Jesus tells his followers. “So the last will be first, and the first last.”
In his earthly ministry, the one who is God and man chose to embrace the paradox of being both and make his reign one of humility. It continues to shock, because it continues to be completely countercultural and at odds with our world.
So, how are we called to prepare the way of the Lord in this day and age? As Jesus commands, we must care for those he cared for, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers,” he reminds us, “you did it to me.”
At the same time, we must allow ourselves to be surprised by God, remembering that Jesus’ teachings always run deeper than what appears on the surface. Who, beyond those Jesus mentions in his parable of the Final Judgment, are we challenged to love in a spirit of Christian charity? Where is God’s grace and healing most needed but least expected?
Like Jesus, we must accept these complicated, often ambiguous questions as part of a paradox, following a way we know but cannot fully fathom, laying a path without being certain where it might lead. Jesus never promised that joining him and taking up our crosses would be free of darkness, pain and even death. What he did guarantee was that he would be with us every step of the way.