‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
Luke 3:1-6 (NRSV)
At its core, Advent requires a stereoscopic vision. On the one hand, it invites us to look backward – to the expecting and expectant Mary, to Zechariah, to prophetess Anna, to Joseph, to John the Baptiser and all the other people we encounter during this Advent and Christmas season.
But at the same time – and this is what we tend to forget, so easily lost in the preparation for Christmas celebrations – Advent invites us not only to look back, but also forward – to the Day of the Christ which will come, and to our own expectation and preparation for it.
Advent requires this stereoscopic vision, for without having one, it is impossible to grasp the other in its depth. It is impossible to understand the meaning of the events leading to the birth of a little baby boy some two thousand years ago in Bethlehem without the perspective of what is is yet to come; and it is impossible to look to the future awaiting all of us – perhaps very soon! – without grounding our thoughts and sights in the story of how God acted with his people in the days when Tiberius was the Emperor, “when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…”.
The names may not be familiar, but although far removed from our times, this was a world much like ours today. You could choose from a number of countries today which live under the political or economic occupation of the foreign powers, being ruled by their local representatives, and perhaps, just for appearance’s sake, having some puppet leader or ‘king’ who really isn’t one. And, just like it often happens in our days, the institutional religion and its representatives on the whole had learned pretty well how to live with the occupying powers. Those who had money or good connections, managed to create a cozy existence for themselves. As usual, the people to bear the greatest price were the ones without such means and those refusing to make a deal with the occupying forces.
Into such a world came John the Baptiser - “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’.” Luke quotes Isaiah: Every valley to be filled, every mountain and hill to be made low; the crooked to be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth – so that all flesh sees the salvation of God!
Have you every wondered about this imagery of John’s introduction of his ministry? Why should all the hills be flattened, why should the valleys be filed? The landscape’s so much more beautiful with mountains and valleys around!
Well, it could be simply so that the coming King is not disturbed by the uneven movements of the chariot. This is often the reasons for building roads nowadays – you have to have somebody important wanting and needing that road, and then the money will be found for it.
However, somehow that doesn’t seem a satisfactory explanation. It also seems to be at odds with what we know about the Kingdom proclaimed by John and later, his cousin Jesus. Why is it so important that the valleys are filled, and that the crooked be made straight? Could it be that the imagery actually picks up on something deeper?
For example, the hills, or mountains. Even today some hills are indicated in guidebooks as ancient worship sites. Up higher, people would feel to be closer to God or gods. We remember this also from the stories of the Old Testament. There was Mount Zion, and also Bethel as its alternative for the Northern Kingdom. Remember also the argument between the Jews and Samaritans – “on which mountain is it right to worship?”
The one who prepares the way of the Lord, does so by bringing low the mountains of all our religious worship. God – the Emmanuel – is coming to dwell with us! High places of worship – whichever idol worship it is – will be leveled, says the word of the prophet.
And the valleys – those are not beautiful places with thick green plants and lakes to enjoy some fishing. In the language of the Scripture, these are the valleys of tears, of violence, of death, of shadows, of bitterness, of desperation. Thus in the footsteps of the prophets who have gone before him, John is preparing the way for the good news to the poor and afflicted who do not even know there can be life anywhere outside the valley.
This is what John believed he came to do. His task was confirmed by others, including his cousin Jesus. We are also glad to acknowledge him as the “voice crying out in the wilderness,” the one preceding the Messiah. That’s all comfortably clear. But what if we are asked to practice the muscles of our spiritual vision and look to the other side of Advent message – to the time yet to come, to the day of the Lord which is still ahead of us? Will our eyes be able to focus our vision to recognize the prophetic message for us today, and to see in what ways we gave to straighten our crooked ways, our mountains and our valleys today, in order to be ready and able to receive the coming King?
This will be the real test whether we have actually understood John’s message, as churches and as individuals. The challenge is still there to “repent” – that is, to change our ways, to begin to think differently, to change directions, to choose different paths from the ones we’re used to.
What are the things we have to repent of, what are the ways we have to convert to, what is the preparation needed for the coming Day of Christ? What are the valleys of darkness and poverty and violence which need to be filled? What are the mountains which have lured us to worship something or someone else instead of the worship of Emmanuel, God-with-us?
When Christmas celebrations accelerate, when we busily write our last Christmas cards, when we watch Christmas lights, may all these things serve us as a way to see our world today with the eyes of God and God’s prophets. May our vision not be blurred and obscured by the glitter; may it be instead sharpened, helping us to see and join in the works of preparation for the coming day of the Lord. Maranatha; Come, Lord Jesus.
Lina Androviene BA MTh (Prague/Lithuania) - December 2009