Skip to main content

In the desert prepare the way of the Lord (Is 40: 3).

It is Advent, so once again we hear in the liturgy the beloved Scriptures that recur from year to year, calling us to new awareness, new vigilance, new readiness for the coming of the Lord. This coming may be the final coming of Jesus in glory at the end of all things. Or it may be the most personal coming of Christ to each person at the moment of our death. But it most certainly is the daily coming of Christ to all people in the guise of the duty of the moment, the constant call to charity and responsive service in all circumstances.

Be that as it may, Advent is our yearly reminder to stay awake, to be watchful and wise, to be ready for Christ whenever and however He comes. In short – to prepare. The above verse from Isaiah 40 comes on the 2nd Sunday of Advent this year and reminds us of a particular aspect of this preparation, namely that it is to occur in the desert, in the wilderness.

For we moderns, the full impact of this verse may elude us. We are very used to roads going through deserts or wilderness areas. Just last year I had occasion to drive from our house in Winslow Arizona to my current assignment in Missouri, and it was the I-40 almost the whole way. It was a top speed highway through some of the most desert landscapes one can dream of, with regular exits lined with fast food joints and gas stations. We don’t have as many deserts in Canada, but our roads, too, wind through dense forests and rocky fastnesses. They are triumphs of modern engineering but they make it harder for us to understand the Word of God about wilderness.

The key thing we need to realize is that in the ancient world a wilderness was a wilderness precisely because there was no road going through it. By definition, the deserts and wild places were pathless, trackless, way-less.

To say in the desert prepare the way of the Lord means to make a way where there is no way, to look for a road where there seems to be no such thing nor any prospect of such a thing. This prophecy was given in Babylon, in the time of exile and bitter loss, when the possibility of a return to Israel, to the land of the promise, seemed to have receded into an impossible future. The prophecy of Isaiah 40, which begins a long section in that book known as The Book of Consolation, is about one thing and one thing only, and that one thing is most relevant and urgently needed in our days as well.

That thing is hope, the hope that comes when all seems hopeless. The hope that endures when all the triumphs of modern engineering seem to be crumbling about us and at any rate don’t seem to be ushering in any kind of new heavens and new earth any time soon. The hope that endures when all our human solutions – political, social, economic, technological, psychological, therapeutic – seem to be falling short if not utterly failing us. The hope that endures when all human hope is gone. This is the theological virtue of hope which, along with faith and love, infused into us at baptism by grace and the Spirit, are the basis of the spiritual life. It is the virtue of hope that keeps our eyes fixed on the Lord continually, knowing that it is He and He alone that makes that road where there is no road, that highway across the desolate plain, that way when everything in us cries out, “No way!”

We live in a world filled with problems and troubles on all sides, and the solutions to those problems are in short supply. In our personal lives any one of us may face situations each day where we simply do not know what to do or where there is just nothing to do, really. The faces and facets of human brokenness and the afflictions and burdens that come with that are many and complex. Quite often there is, or at least seems to be, no way forward. Well, when all else fails, look to the Lord. This is the great message of Advent and of our Christian faith. When all else fails, pray. When all else fails, cry out. When all else fails, believe, and love, and serve, and wait.

We might even try looking to the Lord before all else fails, you know! That’s the path of holy wisdom, of course, which chooses to live by the virtue of hope daily and not just pull it out of some dusty corner of our knapsack when everything else falls apart. Look to the Lord; wait upon the Lord. Keep praying, keep loving, keep doing what the Lord has given us to do in his Gospel – practice mercy, forgive our enemies, keep going down the path of heroic service and generous self-gift. This is what it means to be awake, vigilant, ready, watching.

The great wonder and awe of it is that this watchful way of life ends up precisely and exactly being the “way in the desert”, the path that sees us through whatever pathless waste we find ourselves in, personally and communally. The way that God has already made in the world, the way that brings us through exile and loss, trial and sorrow and even death itself, is the way of Christ, engineered triumphantly and for all time in his Incarnation, his Passion and Death, and his glorious Resurrection.

Christ is the way, and He meets us on the way and walks with us so that we don’t get lost. In this Advent time, may we eagerly and gladly look for him and not lose heart, no matter how broken and dark our world may seem at times. It is, but He isn’t. And that’s the important thing, don’t you agree?