Every successful company has a catchy slogan that helps us to identify their products and services. For example, if I were to say, "Just do it", you would immediately think of the sports apparel company, Nike. If I were to say, "I'm loving it", you would think of McDonald's. These tag-lines are clever marketing tools designed to make us remember the company and its brand and to make them stand out against their competition.
However, it is not just modern corporations like Nike and McDonald's that use slogans and tag-lines. Prophets do as well. When we say, "Prepare the way of the Lord," there is no doubt that we are talking about John the Baptist. That phrase sums up his whole life and ministry. He was a prophet sent by God to help the people prepare for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, by turning away from their sin. His central message was that God was about to visit his people in a new and powerful way and that they had to prepare themselves to welcome him.
The phrase, "Prepare the way of the Lord," not only sums up the message of John the Baptist, it also describes what these four weeks of Advent are about. We are preparing ourselves for the coming celebration of Jesus' birth. Through prayer and penance, we are giving thanks that he has come among us as a man, we are looking forward to his future coming in glory, and we are attentive to the ways in which he visits us here and now with his grace. And so when we hear the words, "Prepare the way of the Lord," we are not only reminded about John the Baptist preaching on the banks of the Jordan River two thousand years ago, but we are also reminded that we are called upon today to get ready for the God who is coming to visit us.
Even though we associate this phrase with John the Baptist, it did not originate with him. It was first used by the prophet Isaiah and then echoed in the book of the prophet Baruch from which our first reading is taken today. Baruch, however, uses the idea very differently from the way Isaiah and John the Baptist did. Whereas they were encouraging us to prepare the way for God, Baruch was consoling his people by telling them that God was preparing a way home for them.
The prophet Baruch ministered at a time when many of God's people were living outside of the Holy Land. The Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and, in order to strengthen their control over the city, they marched the people out into exile. The journey into exile was long and treacherous leading through mountains, valleys and deserts. Many Israelites died along the way. The Babylonians took them along the most dangerous routes so that the Israelites would lose all hope of ever returning to their homeland again. It would be too perilous a journey to ever undertake even if they were to regain their freedom. Through the prophet Baruch, God wanted to console his people - both those who remained in Jerusalem and those who were forced into exile - to let them know that he would prepare a way home for them again. It would not be a dangerous and treacherous path like the one which led them out to exile, but a smooth and easy way back to their home in Jerusalem. If they would prepare a place for God in their hearts, God promised to prepare a way home for them.
These weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas are a time for homecoming. Our family members who live far away will often make the trip home to spend the holidays with their loved ones. It is a joyous sight to see our parish filled to capacity with students who are home from college for winter break and parishioners who make a special effort to attend Mass for Christmas even if they do not happen to come every Sunday. Hopefully, many of our local men and women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan will be able to make it home for the holidays as well. We are preparing to welcome them with great joy.
However, we need to remember those for whom the way home is a hard road. So many people are separated from their loved ones during the holidays because of resentments and unsettled quarrels. Just as sadly, many people are separated from the Church because they feel that their sinfulness puts them beyond the hope of ever reconciling with God or because something unkind was said to them by a priest and they have never gotten over the hurt. That bitterness between family members, friends and between the Church and her children can make these days especially difficult and painful. Could it be that this year God wants to prepare a way home for someone we love with whom we have lost touch? Could it be that God wants us to prepare a way for him by reaching out to someone who has hurt us? Could it be that this year God wants to smooth out our rocky past and clear out a straight pathway home for us - both to our family home and to our spiritual home? Is there someone in our lives who is waiting for us to invite them home again?
During this Advent season we pick up the cry of John the Baptist, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" But we also remember that God is preparing a way for us, a way which leads directly to him. The way he has prepared for us can seem like a difficult one full of sacrifice and difficulties. But it is a much smoother pathway than the bumpy road of selfishness, pride and greed that we have so often found ourselves on and which has lead us away from our loved ones and our God. Can the cry of John the Baptist be more than just a slogan for us? Can it be a way that we choose to live, always preparing ourselves to meet the God who calls us home and ever ready to set our foot on the pathway which leads to peace?