Prepare the Way of the Lord

Second Sunday of Advent (C)

One of the best things about Western Carolina University is undeniably its location. The southern Appalachian mountains are the main attraction, which is why our mountain vistas are prominently featured on the school’s website and promotional literature. The mountains we are blessed to call home are exciting to climb. The view provided from the peaks is simply glorious. Even the valleys in between have their benefit. Most mountain communities, Cullowhee included, are located in the valleys to take advantage of the shelter and protection they provide.

But there is no denying it. As great as they are, when it comes to making a straight path from point A to point B, mountains get in the way. Just ask the people who built the winding highways through our region. They’d much rather build roads across wide open plains than tackle our peaks and valleys.

In the scripture readings for this Sunday, we encounter John the Baptist, who calls for us to prepare the way of the Lord by making low the mountains and filling in the valleys. As we prepare for Christ to enter more fully into our hearts, we want to make his path as smooth as possible. That’s why we are called to make low the mountains and fill in the valleys. But what does this mean practically?

The mountains are obstacles that rise up between ourselves and God. What might these obstacles be? Certain sin is a primary obstacle, especially mortal (serious, or deadly) sin. Sin, by definition, is ungodly. The Catechism defines sin as “a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God.” If we want God to live within our hearts, we need to clear away anything that his contrary to His life of grace. The remedy for sin is repentance, confession, and a firm resolution to amend our lives with God’s help. This is why John the Baptist prepared for Christ’s coming by proclaiming a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

But apart from sin, other obstacles can also arise between ourselves and God. Anything — even good things — can become an obstacle to grace if we allow them a place in our lives that only God should occupy. We should love God above all other things, so when something else has become our top priority, the most important thing to us, we create a false idol. Anything can be made into an idol — money, career, school, leisure, sports, sex, politics, hobbies, even our friends and family — if it has come to occupy a place in our heart that belongs rightly to God. It can become a mountain between us and God.

And then there are distractions; all the little things that tend to get in the way of our religious obligations and prevent us from focusing on God the way we ought to. Maybe these are not mountains, but they can be pretty large hills that make our path to God more difficult. Have we allowed time for God in our daily schedule? Do we do the things we need to do, like homework or household tasks, efficiently and prayerfully so that they don’t distract us from our faith? Do we allow time for silence in our lives so that we can hear God speaking to us, or do we instead find ways of occupying every waking moment?

These sorts of things are the mountains we need to make low. But what about the valleys, the low areas of our lives? These are the things that are missing that we need to fill in to make straight God’s path. What is missing from your live that would make the way for Christ more smooth?

Prayer is certainly something we could all make more time for. Prayer is essential to the Christian life. It is our communication with God, when we speak to Him and listen to Him. It is how we foster and sustain our relationship with our heavenly Father. Prayer is when we raise our minds and hearts to God, lifting our gaze for a time above the limited horizon of this mortal world to look upon something greater. We need prayer like we need oxygen. Our spirit suffocates without it.

Do we take advantage of the sacraments? These are touch-points Christ has given us as places of encounter between this world and the next, between the human and the divine. They are sign-posts on the road, our help to strengthen us on our journey. The Eucharist and Confession especially should be a frequent part of the life of every Christian — our daily bread and daily bath, to keep us clean and well-nourished in the faith. Do we make the sacraments a priority in our lives?

Maybe what is missing in your life is study — and I don’t mean schoolwork. We study to learn about subjects that are important to us. How much time do you devote to studying the word of God? Do you read from the scriptures each day? Or from the spiritual writings of the saints? Do you know the Catechism? Can you explain the basics of the faith to others?

Or perhaps the valley that needs to be filled in for you is active charity — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, comforting the sorrowful, educating the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, and all the other ways we are called to put our love of neighbor into action.

All of these things — prayer, study and works of mercy — are essential to the Christian life. If they are neglected, it creates valleys, or low places, that need to be filled in to make straight the way of the Lord.

St. John the Baptist point the way to Christ, but he can’t walk that way for us. We each have to do the work in our own hearts to prepare for the Lord’s coming. Advent is a time for us to take stock and do a spiritual inventory of our lives. I know this is a hectic time of year for students as you enter into the last week of classes and prepare for final exams. But if you’ve read this far, I invite you to step away from your books for a little while — maybe take a walk around campus, or spend some quiet time in the chapel — and spend some time reflection. What are the mountains that you need to make low? What are the valleys that you need to fill in? What practical changes do you need to put in place to make this happen?

The Lord is coming. Let us heed John the Baptist’s call to prepare his way, so that we may see his salvation.