Today's first reading comes from the prophet Isaiah. In fact, most of the Old Testament readings in Advent come from Isaiah. He along with John the Baptist are the voices of Advent. Today's reading from Isaiah has always been regarded as an introduction to the prophetic mission of John the Baptist.
A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the Lord!
Now we usually think of the prophets as foretelling the future, and it is true that Isaiah presents us with a picture of a new world to come. However, the special talent of the Old Testament prophets was their ability to describe with brutal accuracy the wrongs of their own day and call for a day when things would be set right.
As a critic of his own times, Isaiah gives us an introduction to the great New Testament prophet, John the Baptist. In today's gospel, St. Mark quotes Isaiah's famous lines that refer to John.
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
He will prepare your way.
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
In fact Mark’s gospel which we will use throughout this liturgical year begins with the mission of John the Baptist. Unlike Luke and Matthew, Mark omits the story of the nativity and infancy of Jesus and begins with the outset of his public life. In Mark’s gospel John is portrayed as a very popular figure whose proclamation of a baptism of repentance was attracting people from the whole Judean countyside. Nevertheless, he is an unusual public figure in that he minimizes his own importance and deflects attention from himself. He proclaims:
One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.
John is, of course, calling attention to Jesus. What he calls a baptism of repentance is a way for all of us to prepare for the coming of Jesus.
Repentance is about looking over our lives and taking stock of who we are and where we are going. Advent is a perfect time for us to do so. It is the beginning of a new year so to speak. For centuries the Church has advised us to examine our conscience. In particular, such a review might examine a dominant fault and work on ways to correct it, or it might consider a particular strength or virtue and consider ways to increase it.
Even though the phrase, “examination of conscience”, may sound strange to us today, the idea is not outmoded. At the end of each year business people are advised to look back on the past year and consider what worked and what didn't work. They spend hours examining their strengths and weaknesses. For the upcoming year they are urged to prepare a business plan where they will work on developing their strengths and overcoming their weaknesses.
Athletes do the same thing. Every week coaches spend hours examining game films to see what they did right and what they did wrong. Whole practices are devoted to making the necessary corrections and incorporating them into next weeks game plan. Why do we spend so much time preparing for games but so little time preparing for the game of life?
When it comes to the most important things in our own lives we fail to examine our conscience? As the old saying goes, people don't plan to fail, they fail to plan. What did we do wrong last year? How did we hurt ourselves and our loved ones? Can we begin now to rid ourselves of bad or destructive habits?
On the positive side what strengths or virtues do we possess? What can we do to build spiritual muscle memory so that good behavior becomes easy and natural to us? The word virtue merely means a good habit, while a vice is a bad habit. Now is the time to kick the bad habits and concentrate on the good.
In today’s second reading, St. Peter asks, “what sort of persons ought you to be,” and urges us to “be eager to be found without spot or blemish.”
The biggest criticism against Christians today is that we are no different than anyone else. Rather than being a light to the nations, the darkness in our society seems to be overwhelming us. We don't have to go about wearing our religion on our sleeve but in our homes, our schools, and in our businesses we should be producing good fruit. We don't need laws and judges to bring Christ back into Christmas. All we need is for Christians to act like Christians.
Reading 1. Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11
Reading II. 2 Peter 3: 8-14
Gospel. Mark 1: 1-8 (John the Baptist appeared)