[After cobbling together this week’s homily — which is much shorter than usual, because the Mass will include the 15-minute-long Rite of Welcome in my parish — I realized that I also need to preach at another Mass Sunday morning. D’oh. I decided to revisit my original homily, revising and expanding it. The results are below.]
I have to confess to a guilty pleasure: I love watching “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” If you’ve seen it, you know the basic premise: a team of designers, builders and engineers descends by bus on the home of a family living in something resembling a shack. Usually, the family is in serious straits – there are astronomical medical bills or the father has been unemployed for months, or someone is seriously ill. The Extreme Makeover team tears down the house and, in about a week, builds an entirely new one – bigger, better, cleaner — while sending the family on a vacation to Disney World.
Every week is a Cinderella story, with the ABC crew acting as the Fairy Godmothers. It’s shameless, it’s sentimental — and it’s great television. I go through a whole box of Kleenex before the end.
Given today’s scripture readings, you might consider this to be “Extreme Makeover: the Advent Edition.”
Like the TV show, some major renovations are called for. It’s time to get to work.
But the work it involves is even more daunting than we may realize. In fact, I’d say it’s the most challenging work we have to do in the next three weeks. We are being called to do nothing less than to make over our lives.
Because what scripture is referring to isn’t out there.
It’s in here. It is us.
The terrain that is being described in Isaiah — all those mountains and valleys — is really the landscape of the heart. We’re being summoned to clear a path for God – to make room for Him. That is what Advent is all about – “preparing the way of the Lord” to make him welcome.
So, during this time of preparation, we scan the horizon of our lives. Look closely. What do we see?
What are the deep valleys that need to be filled in?
Where are the places that are hollow, or empty?
Are there rugged stretches – sharp, and painful, and hard – that need to be made smooth?
Are there roadblocks that get in the way? Are there potholes?
Now is the time to do something about it.
Now is the time to remove all the obstacles – those things that have closed us off from one another, and from God.
In the gospel, that theme becomes more explicit. And we’re being called to do all this by the most unlikely figure you can imagine: John the Baptist.
Every year, the Church devotes the second Sunday of Advent to this great saint and prophet. It is to remind us that this is not just a season of preparation, but one of repentance — a time to get right with God. This is a season to pray more deeply, to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation, to give more of ourselves to one another and to God, as we count down the days to Christmas.
It’s often said that Christianity is counter-cultural. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone more counter-cultural than John the Baptist – a lone figure in a desert, wearing camel skins and a leather belt, eating locusts, and telling people what they don’t want to hear: that they are sinners and need to repent. Despite that, people flocked to him – only to hear him say, “I’m not the one you should be waiting for. Someone else is coming.” He was continually pointing the way to Christ – and was himself preparing the way of the Lord.
And now that job is up to us.
Last night, we celebrated the Rite of Welcome, one of my favorite rituals in the Church. Fourteen candidates for RCIA stood outside the doors of the church and knocked – and were welcomed with great joy into the congregation. That knock is, I think, a sound of great poetry and meaning — a sound of possibility and hope. It is the sound of our church being renewed and reborn.
Last night, to my ears, it was the most beautiful sound in the world.
And it reminds us of another who knocks, another who desires to be a part of us and who wants to be welcomed in from the cold and the dark.
We need to open the doors to Christ. And that, too, is part of the meaning and the mission of Advent.
If we do it right, we will undertake one of the greatest projects we can imagine. The landscape of our lives will be changed. We can be changed.
So, break out the shovels and earth-movers. Clear away the rubble. Smooth the path. There is work to do – prayerful, hope-filled, joyful work.
Let the “extreme makeover” of our hearts begin.
It is time to prepare the way of the Lord!