The Gospel read today takes up where it left off last week. John the Baptist is explaining himself to those sent to find out about him. But, it has to be understood in the light of middle eastern custom. It was written by an Easterner for eastern people, and may not immediately make sense to us in our culture. St. John the Baptist is telling the inquiring Jews that his function is like that of an agent sent out before a king about to make a journey through the remote parts of his kingdom. In eastern kingdoms, this might literally mean the construction and modernization of roads, and the preparation of other facilities for the monarch's trip. Valleys might have to be filled -- and mountains have to be moved -- in order to make the king's passage smooth and easy.
Of course, St. John was a poor man, without resources for remodeling roads -- so most of what he says here has to be understood in a symbolic sense. St. John is telling us -- precisely as he told the Jews 2000 years ago -- that we must do our level best to "make straight the way of the Lord." Not that our Lord is taking a physical journey somewhere. Much more importantly, we are called upon to make straight and easy the way of the Lord into our lives. We are asked to give Him ready access to our souls. In a manner of speaking, we are encouraged to invite Him into our hearts.
All to often, Catholic people feel that they have "fulfilled their obligation" to make God welcome by doing nothing more than attending Sunday Mass -- or perhaps, in this context, by coming to Mass on Christmas day. That is fine, as far as it goes, but something more than our physical presence is required. We should make the effort to attend Mass as often as possible, put our intention has to be more than merely to have a good attendance record. Just as all too many people attend school without becoming educated, too many attend Mass without becoming holy.
In order to properly welcome our infant King when He comes at Christmas, we need, first of all, to undergo a conversion of manners. That is to say that, if we have been careless in keeping the Commandments, we need to become much more careful in their keeping. And, if we have been keeping them, yet have remained grudging and difficult with the people around us, we need to make the effort to get along as good neighbors, and as good examples to our neighbors. It should be obvious to those around us that we keep the Commandments for the love of God -- that our lives would make no sense without God.
This last thought, of course, suggests much more than a conversion of manners; a mere external change. If we are going to make it easy for God to enter into our hearts, we need to make a conscious effort to move ourselves closer to the Heart of God. We might say that in addition to a conversion of manners, we need to make a conversion of heart. Our motivation for doing good ought not to be simple selfishness. Even though obeying God's laws will bring us a more orderly life, that shouldn't be our prime motivation for doing so. We ought to learn to know and love God in His goodness; and seek to please Him, so that He will more easily come to dwell in us as a temple of His Holy Spirit.
Those of you who were at Mass yesterday will probably have noticed that yesterday's Gospel was repeated again today. That's because the ember Saturday Masses are ordination Masses, and the newly ordain priests eagerly anticipate this Sunday Mass. That might prompt all of us to pray for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life -- perhaps even to consider such a life for ourselves. Certainly, the way of the Lord will be made much more smooth if He has goodly numbers of willing helpers doing His work. At least, we should pray for this.
And for all of us -- priest, religious, or layman -- St. John is calling us to make both the conversion of manners and the conversion of heart.
The time of year, I think, is right for St. John to make such an appeal to us. During Lent and Passiontide, we are often called to take up our cross and follow our Savior. That's good and proper -- but for those just beginning, it is asking a great deal -- perhaps more than modern men and women want to agree to give.
At Christmas time the call is a little sweeter. It is easier for us to hear and respond to the call to Bethlehem than to Jerusalem; to come to the manger rather than to the cross; to learn to love the sweet infant Jesus rather than the suffering Messiah.
As with many things in life, we are presented with two ways of doing things -- a hard way, and one less difficult. Nothing is ever easy; and things are rarely free. But if we are ever to come to grips with the ultimate purpose for our lives, we must come to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ.
This sweet and lovely season of Advent preparation for Christmas is the easiest time to make our conversion of heart and manners; rather than waiting for the Lent and Passiontide of our lives.
"Make ready the way of the Lord, make straight His paths.