Preparing the way requires an emptying of the self
This Sunday’s Gospel is an interesting one, considering that it goes to great pains to establish the historical fact of the person, life and work of John the Baptist. Take note that the first half of the Gospel establishes this historicity of John the Baptist—the Roman bosses, then the Palestinian leaders and finally the Jewish religious authorities are named in succession. This is to drive home the point that John was for real!
According to a scripture scholar, this Gospel passage signals the turning point not just in the history of salvation, but in the history of humanity. The turning-point event is the coming of Christ into the world, with John as the herald who announces this.
As it is then and now, when kings and rulers come, there is always an advance party—the messengers or heralds who announce the king’s coming. In the olden days, and perhaps even now, the heralds announce the coming of the king so the people can literally and physically prepare the way of the king, i.e. fix the roads, perhaps set up a welcome sign of sorts, etc.
John, quoting from Isaiah, calls for the preparations for the coming of the King of Kings. As scripture says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
History also tells us that John’s message did resonate with many persons. We know from scripture that he did have a very big and solid following. He was so effective that he also earned the wrath of the people he critiqued and eventually died a martyr’s death because of this.
The greatest compliment, though, is from Christ himself, who praises John as the greatest man born of a woman.
The power of John, his appeal, is in the message he delivered: Christ. He simply asks us to “empty” ourselves to make room for Christ.
Allow me to suggest a way to “empty” ourselves, not quite your usual repent and penance type of preparation for a great feast such as Christmas, but a conversion to what is good and lovable in us.
There is a process that we use in our programs called Appreciative Inquiry (AI). This is a process and school of thought in the US used as a tool for change in organizations. One of the key authors of AI is David Copperider.
The basic premise of AI is that there is always something good, something that works well in an organization. With this basic premise, it proceeds to ask four basic questions, which all focus on the good that is going on in the organization, the high point, the inspiration in the organization. The four basic questions end with a bright look at the future for the organization.
This is why AI is referred to as a “positive revolution.” One of its icons, i.e. often referred to by AI practitioners, is Mahatma Gandhi, who said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
John the Baptist, AI, Mahatma Gandhi, all of them carry the same message—the need for change. Gandhi says change begins with us and thus we can and we have the power to do it. AI looks at change beginning with one’s positive core, what gives us life, what we do best, what inspires us. John the Baptist calls upon us to make way for the Lord by creating a straight path, filling the valleys and leveling the mountains; he calls upon us with faith in the human spirit that we can do it. We can respond. We can rise to the occasion, so to speak.
Ignatius of Loyola shared the same faith in human nature. He prescribes that as one aims for a realistic knowledge of self, one must first look at one’s blessings and goodness. He specifically says this must be the first step in the process and with this positive grounding one is better equipped to face one’s shortcomings and sinfulness.
Capacity to change
In the end, all renewal must lead to this, a renewal of faith in one’s goodness and a renewal of faith in one’s capacity to change and become better. This renewal is the positive core of faith that leads us to discover something even deeper; discover someone, paraphrasing St. Augustine’s words, more intimate to us than we are to ourselves—God himself.
In Ignatius’ process of gaining a realistic knowledge of self, the knowledge of self leads to a knowledge of God’s love. It is the love of God that is very palpable and very much intertwined with our real experiences and situations.
One of my most difficult moments as a priest happened almost 10 years ago. I attended the birthday celebration of a friend, and one of the guests shared with me her experience at confession.
She had not gone to confession for around three years and when she finally got the inspiration to do so, she had a traumatic experience. She was berated by the priest. But what I felt saddest about, what pained me most was when she told me, “Father, I never felt dirtier in my life after that confession.”
She continues to believe in God, but has stopped believing in confession as a sacrament that will bring her closer to God.
I believe such experiences are far from the spirit and grace of the sacrament of reconciliation. It is far from the spirit of the call to renewal of John. It is certainly far from the message of Christ.
Advent is a time of renewal. It is a time for new beginnings. Let us begin by believing in the good that lies within us. Let us love ourselves again because God loves us.
John heralds the turning point in human history. This turning point is well-summarized by a line from a song we first sang almost 18 years ago, when as a people and nation, as a church we were so united with the whole world during World Youth Day 1995 in Manila. It was a song we sang with one voice: “God so loved the world He gave us His only son.”
This is the turning point in human history in the first Christmas.