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Sunday 5 December 2021: Advent 2

I hate roadworks!

Baruch 5:1-9; Luke 3:1-6

By Vladimir Nikiforov

Roman Catholic priest in Saint Paul’s parish, Haywards Heath

Context: a Sunday Mass with a mixed urban congregation of 250-300

Aim: to address the spiritual condition that makes us insensitive to the Spirit and resistant to God’s nearness

I hate roadworks. All of a sudden traffic lights appear on a familiar road with long queues building by them. A journey that normally takes twenty minutes now can take half an hour. People arrive at church waiting for the priest to begin but their priest is instead sitting in a queue waiting for a green light.

Road works are painful for all of us. In the early 1990s a new road was planned in East London to cope with the increasing traffic levels. The residents responded with very vigorous protests. They dug underground tunnels under the road, got inside those tunnels and secured themselves by concrete. To get them out took a long time and the road works had to be stopped. In the end the protestors declared independence of their neighbourhood from Britain. They even started issuing the passports of their independent territory. None of us like traffic congestion. Yet none of us want to have a major road built near our homes.

Road construction and road protests come to mind in connection with today’s readings. Both our reading from Baruch and from the Gospel tell us about some massive roadworks. It’s about changing the very landscape. John the Baptist quotes prophet Isaiah who describes a monumental road project: ‘Prepare a way for the Lord, Make his path straight. Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill laid low. Winding ways will be straightened, and rough roads made smooth.’

Why those colossal road works? What are they for? About six hundred years before Christ, after losing the war, the Israelites were resettled to the Babylonian Empire. After a couple of generations, they found a new life in Babylon. When they were finally given the permission to return to their native country their reaction was lukewarm. The land of Israel was in ruins, and they had to rebuild it from the ground up. There was another important factor. It was travel itself. There were indeed mountains and valleys in between Babylon and Israel. The journey was not going to be easy. Isaiah and other prophets were campaigning to convince the Israelites to return. Of course, mountains and valleys remained as they were. The prophets were just trying to say that God would help his people along their journey home.

Centuries later John the Baptist employed those poetic texts. Did he call the people to leave home? Where were they supposed to go? No, John did not call the people to go somewhere else. He tried to facilitate moral and spiritual regeneration of the nation. He called the people to leave the old way of life and to travel towards a new life where they would live in harmony with the will of God. He called them to build a proper road for God. We should remember that all communications in the ancient world depended on roads. By building a highway for God the people would improve their communications with him. God would become closer to his people. The new road would end their insular existence and wake them up to the presence of God.

Is this image of a highway for God of any relevance for us? Don’t we hate roadworks in principle? Have we not found some comfortable distance from God? Are we not happy to be in a long-distance relationship with him rather than letting him into our homes, into our very hearts? Is it not better to give him a grand reception a couple of times a year instead of having him as our neighbour whom we cannot ignore?

During the season of Advent, we estimate how far away God is from our life. Well, we try to keep him not terribly far but not too close either. What helps us to keep this optimal distance? Mountains and valleys that isolate us from him. They are the mountains of our indifference and the valleys of our spiritual lethargy. We do not want any change. Our cravings are comfort and security. Yet deep inside we can discern the quiet voice of the Spirit calling us to grow and flourish. If we follow that inspiration and open wide the doors and windows of our hearts then the fresh wind from above will save us from suffocation with comfort and security. Advent is the season for roadworks even if these are at times inconvenient and disturbing. The mountains and valleys keeping us away from God have to be flattened. Let us work to prepare the way for the Lord to arrive in our neighbourhood, close to home.

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