In this week’s Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12), we read about John the Baptist preaching repentance in the desert and baptizing the throngs of people who came, acknowledging their sins. In case his readers and hearers miss the significance of this seemingly simply man, who dressed in camel’s hair and survived by eating locusts and wild honey, the Gospel writer makes it clear that John the Baptist is the one foretold by the prophet Isaiah. We are told that it was of him Isaiah was speaking when he said, “A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths: an excellent mission statement for this season of Advent. Advent is a time for making ourselves and our world ready for God’s coming at Christmas. It is a time for removing that which stands between us and God and for straightening out our path to God, which may have become needlessly twisted over the years of our lives. This is one important way we can prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas.
What is standing in between you and God this Advent season? A likely culprit could be the consumerism and bustle that seems to inhere to this season. Our ever-lengthening to-do lists (with demands for gift purchasing and wrapping, card making and addressing and sending, cookie baking and tasting and sharing, house cleaning and decorating) do indeed make a very curvy path to Christmas. So much of what we do does not seem to serve the purpose of preparing the way for Christ. Yet realistically, it is hard to opt out completely from the ways that our culture assigns meaning to these weeks before Christmas.
One thing we can do to straighten the path, even as we live in this consumer-driver and all too busy world, is to “remember the reason for the season” and to use this as our guide in making decisions. In other words, we can ask ourselves some honest questions about our Advent traditions, routines, demands, and events. We can take the time to discern whether we are doing all these things for a reason that supports our preparation for God’s coming into the world. If it does, we can understand it as an important part of our Advent journey. If it does not, then it may be possible to let it go, knowing that it was something that was unnecessarily complicating our preparation for Christmas.
For instance, this year I find myself asking,
- Do I send Christmas cards just because that is what so many of my friends and family do? OR Are Christmas cards a way to stay in touch with loved ones and to genuinely extend Christmas blessings?
- Do I bake Christmas cookies to satisfy my own sweet tooth and because it is hard to imagine a party does that does not revolve around food? OR Is baking itself a time to connect with my sons and to tell them stories about Christmas traditions that were important to me growing up?
- Am I buying this gift because I want to be a cool mom or the best sister? OR Am I buying this gift as a genuine way to show my love? Am I spending money irresponsibly with the logic of “Heck, it’s Christmas!” OR am I spending it in a way that means I can also give to those who are less fortunate?
- Is decorating the house just one more thing to do and one more reason to accumulate stuff? OR is it a way to create a space for patiently waiting for Jesus’ birth?
At least for this Advent, I am going cut back on the number of cookies we bake, sticking to a few kinds that my sons will enjoy helping me decorate. I am also going to scale back the decorating, focusing on an Advent wreath on the dinner table, a Nativity set for the boys to play with, and a tree with all its storied ornaments. This will make it easier for me to walk by the Christmas section at Target each week and say confidently, “I don’t need that.” Maybe this will help make my path a bit straighter.
What can you do this Advent season to make straight God’s path? What can you do to ask for support for this work, from God and from the important people in your life?