Life & Soul

At the beginning of Advent the prophet Isaiah summons us to joyful expectation

Mount Zion seen from the south by Victorian landscape painter Thomas Seddon

“Go up on a high mountain, joyful messenger to Zion. Shout with a loud voice, joyful messenger to Jerusalem. Shout without fear, say to the towns of Judah: ‘Here is your God.’”

At the beginning of Advent the prophet Isaiah summons us to joyful expectation. While most have experienced joy in their lives, it is difficult to describe the precise nature of this emotion. For Isaiah, joy was the response of a sinful people to the promise of approaching salvation. “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended, that her sin is atoned for, that she has received from the hand of the Lord double punishment for all her crimes.”

A people who considered themselves to have forfeited all claim to God’s love were given new hope. Like those addressed by the prophet Isaiah, we are frequently burdened by the past. We can feel trapped by the consequences of neglected opportunities, confined by our own sinful choices. All too frequently the temptation is to resign ourselves to the malaise of disappointed hope.

If there is to be a joyful future, then that future must be of God’s making. Such was the future promised by Isaiah: “Here is your God. Here is the Lord coming with power. He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast.”
Our Advent journey begins as we acknowledge the wilderness in our own lives. Sin distances us both from God and from each other, bringing about a wilderness that overwhelms love and hope. Let us not be afraid to acknowledge such a wilderness. It is from the heart of our wilderness that the Father calls: “A voice cries in the wilderness: prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.”

John the Baptist appeared as the embodiment of this promise. The city dwellers of Jerusalem and Judea abandoned the comfort of the city to meet him in the wilderness. Only in the wilderness, free from the daily distractions that crowded their lives, could they hear his message of hope: “Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.”

Advent must, in some sense, become the wilderness that prepares the way of the Lord. Long ago, the prophet Isaiah spoke of mountains to be laid low and valleys to be filled in preparation for the coming of the Lord. With repentance, let us acknowledge the sinful attitudes that have become as mountains and valleys between ourselves and the presence of God. Then, with renewed joy, we shall welcome the Lord who baptises us not with water, but with the Holy Spirit.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (5/12/14)