Isaiah 40:1–5, 9–11; 2 Peter 3:8–14; Mark 1:1–8
I’ve had two stints in graduate school. One of the common experiences that graduate students have—universally, as far as I can tell—is that they don’t belong where they are, that they are frauds. They are surrounded by peers whom they respect and admire, and it’s a surprising and welcome thing when one of them mentions their admiration of their work. Of course, along with this general sense of being a fraud are the subconscious stories that play out in dreams. These are common to many of us: the one where you’re in public with no clothes or where you have an exam in math and haven’t completed a single assignment all semester.
Life as a graduate student means always striving to be prepared—for class, for exams, for essays. I think the big difference between graduate school and other educational experiences is that you know what your goal is, it’s self selected, and failure carries a cost, even if it’s merely a personal, emotional cost. Preparation is the key to success
Sadly, we often don’t take that view of our spiritual lives. More often than not, we treat the idea of preparing spiritually as if it’s optional. Advent reminds us that we need to prepare, the season of Advent reminds us to focus on preparation: for Christ’s arrival and for Christ’s return. Our readings from Isaiah and from the Gospel of Mark subtly reveal this to us.
I want to point out an interesting divergence between these two passages. It’s clear that Mark’s gospel alludes to Isaiah, but there is an important syntactical difference between the two.
Now, I used to teach college composition, and I’m a technical writer by trade. Proper punctuation is the fifth cardinal virtue for me, and the Oxford comma is not negotiable. I’m a geek when it comes to grammar and convention.
So let’s compare the two verses:
Here’s Isaiah: “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”
Here’s Mark: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”
Notice where the pauses are, the breaks that tell us who is saying what and who is where. Our reading from Isaiah says, “A voice cries out,” and the message is “in the desert prepare a way.” In Mark, the narrator introduces John the Baptist as “a voice of one crying out in the desert” and the message is “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
I find the difference striking! As all of scripture is inspired, I don’t see these passages in conflict but as revealing two related truths. We need to be prepared, and we need to help in the preparation.
Let’s start with Isaiah: “A voice cries out, ‘In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” What does this mean literally? What does it mean for us personally? In its literal sense, it would suggest removing barriers, creating a road in a barren place, leveling the ground to make someone’s arrival possible. But is Isaiah asking us to prepare a physical space for God’s arrival?
I think, rather, that the desert, the wilderness, the barren place is our heart. At times, it doesn’t feel so barren—when I’m busy with the day to day things of life, when I’m filled with the love of family and friends, or the busyness of work. But there are the moments when I am undistracted, when I can allow myself to recognize my spiritual poverty, my bareness and dependency on God. In that desert, I can prepare a way for God to act in my life. But if I don’t prepare, if I don’t remove the barriers, God will not force His way in. A hard truth is that faith is a gift, because faith is not injected into us. It is offered to us. We can only have faith if we accept it as a gift. We have to prepare the pathway in our desert to receive it. Faith begins when we find that spiritual poverty and open ourselves to God’s gift.
How about Mark? Remember the change in emphasis: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.'” What is his treatment of this passage telling us? Well, first, he’s treating it as prophecy. John the Baptist is the voice in the desert foretold by Isaiah, telling the People of Israel to make straight the paths. Mark drops us into the gospel story in medias res—that means, “in the middle of things.” We get no background for John, just his appearance in the desert, and it’s some appearance: wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt, eating locusts and honey. He sounds like a bit of a wild man. Only in Luke do we get his back story—the son of the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, miraculously conceived in their old age. He’s the cousin of Jesus. The background makes his appearance that much stranger. But he’s there to call people to repentance, to prepare themselves for the one to come. He’s essentially proclaiming the gospel message.
But we lose something if we look at John’s role here and see him solely as the prophet foretold by Isaiah. He is one proclaiming the gospel, but he is not the only one. Or should I say, he should not be the only one. After all, our Savior commands the Apostles at the close of Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” That mission is our mission. We are sent out from here to take the gospel message in to the desert of our world. That is one of several dismissals that we chant at the end of Mass: “Go and proclaim the Gospel to the world!” We prepare first to receive the gift of faith, so that we can then be a voice crying out in the desert to others to prepare the way of the Lord.
Unfortunately, Catholics are not always comfortable sharing their faith or evangelizing others, perhaps because we’ve been on the receiving end of having it done poorly to us. But Jesus is not making a request. He commands us to do this. Peter says in his first letter, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear.” So we must be ready and willing to minister to others. And to do that, we must prepare the way first in the desert of our own hearts.
How can you make this your mission? Well, it’s important to recognize what evangelization is and is not. It is not thumping a bible, shouting from a soapbox, or beating people overhead with doctrine. As Peter wrote, do it with gentleness and reverence. Start by living your life as an example of Christian joy. Live your faith out loud. Wear your religious medals and crucifixes visibly. Say grace before meals at restaurants. Be visibly Catholic. Show real Christian love for others. Act like Christ’s hands and feet.
Brennan Manning, a former Catholic priest who did eventually reconcile with the Church, said this about the problems of Christian witness. He said,
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.
So we need to live like we believe what Jesus said. Second, be ready to share your faith when people ask. They might ask you in a challenging way, for example, questioning a unique Catholic teaching; or they may simply be curious. So know the teachings of the faith and be ready to share. Study the faith. Remember, you cannot pass on what you do not possess.
It’s Advent, and the Lord is coming. Are you ready to proclaim the gospel to the world? If not, then in the desert of your heart, prepare the way for the Lord.