One of the books I’m readings currently is a novel by Michael O’Brien, Plague Journal, written as if it were a journal. One section that grabbed my attention was his reflection on a recent art exhibit in the town. The selections of art were all done by the children of the community and he noted that most were images of pop stars, some of new age spiritualities, others were depictions of chaotic events around the world at the time, and lastly there was a simply painting of some horses. He recounts his frustration that while the painting of the horses was deserving of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place awards all together on account of the beauty, detail, richness, and technique of the child. It was truly a work of art. And yet it received none of the above and not even an honorable mention because the judges came in and quickly passed it over to come to things that were more interesting to them, things that fit their personal agendas and mindsets.
This comes to mind because what we encounter in the Gospel of St. Luke is a wonderful work of art, parts of which can easily be passed over as one tries to get to the part they want to hear. Luke’s was the third Gospel written (it’s not for no reason that the Gospel are ordered Matthew-Mark-Luke-John…that’s the order they were composed) and had the advantage of bring Matthew and Mark together with his own sources to compile a profound work of art in recounting the Gospel of Our Lord. We see this in the great detail that he employs at the introduction to today’s section on St. John the Baptist – a whole list of names, places, and a time cue to bring it all home. This brilliant structure from St. Luke draws one into the truth that the Gospel of Christ is not ‘Once upon a time…” but rather a story that is true, filled with people, plans, and dates that all are fresh in the minds of the first hearers. The reality of it emphasizes that St. John’s words are not just a nice story but are a call to actual conversion of life, to preparing the way because Christ is coming into the world.
The prophets Baruch and Isaiah both speak of preparing the way and the temptation for us today is always a spiritual thought process, but they speak also of a physical preparation. When a king was coming to a town outside the city they would often level the hills, fill the valleys, and straighten and fill the roads so he could come quickly, lest he be delayed and ambushed along the journey. To prepare the way is to be able to clear all obstacles away so as to enable the King to come and come quickly. Thy Kingdom come now, Lord.
Last weekend I proposed to you a practical suggestion for preparing the way for the Lord to come to us, and that was singing. This weekend the Lord invites us to prepare the way in the manner noted by the prophets and removing those things from our lives that prevent encounters with our King. We’re invited to be reconciled.
The first point of reconciliation is with others, horizontal reconciliation. To offer forgiveness to someone who has hurt you or to ask forgiveness of someone you may have hurt. Over and over I’ve heard retreat talks drive this point home of reconciling with others, even if only in small issues. I wrote a note to someone once forgiving them for something that I was holding against them and they were quite surprised to find that I was upset with them at all! But in the moment I opened up the conversation and we had a really great talk and were even closer than before at the end. By reaching out to another person and seeking reconciliation and greater unity, we clear the roadways and level things to be able to encounter Christ in them and for them to encounter Christ in us. It also has the bonus of building us up in virtue, such as those of humility, patience, charity, and courage.
The second point is the most important one because it is our reconciliation with the Lord God Himself. This is the main call of the prophets, when we get down to it. It’s the invitation to set our sins aside and to allow the holiness of God to sanctify us. The great thing about this act of reconciliation with God is that it is largely done by him. Whereas in human relationships there are risks that we may not be forgiven or the other person may not be sorry they hurt us, in our relationship with God we are assured that if we seek reconciliation it will be done. God will clear the way, level the mountains and fill the valleys for us! The reality is that our sins – great and small alike – make it difficult for us to encounter the Lord because our desires are disordered, our ability to hear His voice is weakened, and we struggle to have the courage to do His will because we’re accustomed to seeking our own. There are countless reasons why we avoid going to confession to be reconciled with God, but there is one reason to go that trumps them all and that is the love of God for us, His beloved children. Don’t be afraid – come to confession! Be thorough, holding nothing back and giving all to Christ, allowing Him to heal us.
The last piece in reconciliation is being reconciled with our self. We can receive and give forgiveness to others. We can receive and even give forgiveness to God. But the hardest part is forgiving ourselves. We cling to our guilt and pain, not wanting to let them go. We believe ourselves unable to ‘really’ be forgiven. And, interestingly enough, we can hold ourselves to a higher level of perfection than God actually requires of us in that moment. He knows we are but little children trying to make our way home to Heaven, fumbling and bumbling along the way at times. And yet in those moments it is we ourselves, who refuse to acknowledge our own weakness but rather demand greater strength than we ourselves are able to muster. Forgiveness of self is vital in the life of the Christian. Let us ask the Lord for the grace to live out the call of the prophets to ‘take off your robe of mourning and misery and put on the splendor of glory from God forever’!
Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Prince of Peace. Come, O Come, Emmanuel.