Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
2 Peter 3:8-14
Today’s readings show us the twofold message of the season of Advent in very clear detail. Many of us are aware of the first message, because we are already preparing for the family and secular celebrations that commemorate, sometimes however unknowingly, the first part of the meaning of Advent. We know that Advent is a time of preparation, and we often take that to mean a preparation for Christmas, and in the most religious and biblical sense it is a preparation for the birth of Christ, for our commemoration of that birth, and our remembering what that birth meant for the world, and means to our world even today.
There is a two-fold meaning to the season of Advent, and that is very clearly illustrated by our readings today, especially by the inclusion of the second reading from the Second Epistle of St. Peter. In the first reading we are given a prophecy of God’s care for his people and his desire to send them a Messiah for their own good and their own comfort. The people of Israel are told that they need to prepare for the coming of this Messiah, “in the desert prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God.” (cf. Isaiah 40:1-5) In the days of the prophet Isaiah of our Old Testament passage today, this was a prophecy of the Messiah, one where the Prophet speaks of a God who comes in power and glory, but also comes with compassion for his people, and comes because of compassion for his people, out of a desire to end their suffering and the misery of this passing world, and of someone who comes before the Messiah to proclaim the message that the Messiah is coming, to “make straight a highway for our God.”
In the Gospel it is made crystal clear that the person who heralds the coming of Jesus as Messiah and Lord is John the Baptist, that he comes in the spirit of Elijah to proclaim the message that the Messiah is coming, and that indeed the Messiah is here, and he knew in his day that the Messiah was living among men. John understood, even if all of his followers did not understand, that his role was a limited one, his job was to proclaim that the Messiah was here, and he was to prepare people’s hearts and minds for that reality. That preparation was very important, because a Jew of that time would have heard the message of John the Baptist that the Messiah was coming very soon and they would have understood that to be an apocalyptic message, a message which said at the very least that the world that they understood and knew was about to change, and at the most it represented the end of the world as they know it. Most of John the Baptist’s followers would likely have seen that as a good thing, because the world as they knew it was not a very pleasant place for most of them, and it wasn’t a very nice place for many observant Jews. These people believed that when the Messiah comes, that he would make all things right, that Justice would be done for those who have been oppressed, that pagan or worldly rule over the people of God would come to an end, and that righteousness would reign in a new world forever restored according to God’s ancient promise to His people. To this day those Jews who fervently believe in the coming of the Messiah-those Jews who believe that he has not come yet-still hold that the coming of the Messiah will not only bring about a permanent restoration of the Davidic Kingdom, something that we believe has happened with the coming of Jesus Christ, but that all of the wrong in the world will be made right and that God will finally bring Justice to the world. That Justice will especially come to those who are poor, oppressed, forgotten, or who could not get Justice in this life. If the wheels of your mind are turning and you understand Church teaching about the second and final return of Christ you might be saying to yourself “wow, that sounds a lot like what the Church teaches the new Heaven and the new Earth will be like.” That is exactly right, and that is exactly why Advent has a two-fold meaning, which leads us to the significance of why the second reading was included today, and we understand why it is not out of place.
The two-fold meaning of Advent is that we first remember the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ into this world for the sake of us and our salvation, and the redemption of all humanity. It is placed at the head of our liturgical calendar for that reason, because in the Church’s year we travel together through all of the parts and phases of the Lord’s life and ministry on this earth. However, the second part of the meaning of Advent is that we remember that the ministry and purpose of Christ was not finished when he rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven. That ministry was to continue through his Church, through the apostles and through their successors, and through the People of God working to advance the Kingdom of God in this passing world. It will come to a conclusion when Christ finally does return in glory to “make all things new.” (cf. Rev. 21:5) When people heard and read the Prophet Isaiah, if they believed the words that we read in the first reading today, it was that reality that they were looking forward to. When people heard John the Baptist speak of “one mighter than I” who was coming after him, that reality of Divine Restoration, Justice, and Compassion, of the end of a flawed and corrupt world system, was what many of them were looking forward to.
Even by the day of the writer of 2nd Peter, people were beginning to speculate about when the Lord would return and bring about the Consummation of All Things (cf. CCC 670-677). Peter reminds us that the Lord doesn’t work on our time, indeed the great Catholic biblical commentators of yesteryear often reminded us that God is outside of human time and that all things are in the present to Him now, and that means that He sees the End from the Beginning. For much of my lifetime, a great many people have concerned themselves with whether or not Our Lord was about to return. It has become especially popular in certain evangelical circles to speculate about what (mostly American) evangelicals call “the Rapture,” and when that will happen. Divine and Catholic faith is very clear and has been from the very beginnings of the Church, the Lord will return as He promised (cf. Acts 1:10-11), and it will be “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last Trumpet,” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:51-53) that first the dead in Christ will rise and then those who are alive at that time will be “caught up,” those are the words of Scripture. (cf. 1 Thess. 4:13-18) That won’t happen in secret, however, the whole world will know when Jesus Christ has returned in glory, because “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (cf. Phil. 2:10-11) We don’t know when it will happen, but we can rest assured that we serve a God who keeps His promises, and that Our Lord will return just as He promised when He ascended into Heaven. Advent is a liturgical event that serves to remind us that just as Christ came to humanity as a baby born into the poverty of His time, He will come again, there will be another Advent, and at this second Advent He will return in “power and great glory” to “make all things new.” (cf. Matthew 24:30-31)
Even as Advent reminds us of the coming of the baby who was laid in the manger, and Advent reminds us afresh that one day Christ who was that child will return to bring final Justice to this world, it should also serve to remind us that we, too, will have our own meeting with Christ at the end of our lives. Just as we do not know not the day or the hour of Christ’s second and final Coming, we do not know the day, nor the hour, nor the means by which our lives in this world will end and the Advent of Christ will become very real to us when we stand before Him. As we prepare for Christmas and celebrate Christ’s coming as man, it would befit all of us to ask, are we “preparing the way of the Lord” in our own lives so that when our time here is complete, we are more ready to meet Jesus than we will be ready for the guests and the family and the gifts at Christmastime.