Monday, December 11, 2017

The Victory Path (through Mountains and Valleys) - Homily for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (B)

Did you notice how that started? It said,
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...

That doesn't seem like much-- like it's just an introduction or something akin to "Once upon a time." But this line is important. In fact, it's the key to all of our readings today.
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...

Mark starts his gospel book in a way that echoes how the Bible starts: "In the beginning." And what happens "In the beginning"? God creates. Here, Mark starts his book hearkening to that beginning-- to point out to us that something new is about to begin. And what is about to begin?
The Gospel of Jesus Christ...

Again, we've heard that word-- Gospel-- before. But what does it mean? It comes from the Greek: evangelion. That word means "message" or "good news." From this word, evangelion, we get English words such as Evangelist and Evangelize and even the word "angel". So, at Christmas, Gabriel the archangel is a messenger of good news. And what is the good news-- the Gospel, the evangelion?

Of course, it's that Jesus is born.

But there's more to it than that. This word hearkens back to ancient times when a king would be off at battle. If the king and his armies were victorious, they would send back to the cities an evangelion-- a messenger with good news: and the good news was that the king was victorious.

Hold on to that thought for a moment, then, because we need to take a detour back in time.


In our first reading, we hear Isaiah speaking to God's people, Israel. They are in exile in Babylon-- enslaved in a foreign country and far away from home. God says to Isaiah: bring my people comfort, tell them that I will send them a Messiah, one who will deliver them from Babylon, who will win the victory for them and bring them home.

So, the good news, the evangelion, that Isaiah brings is that there will be a king, a messiah, whose victory will set them free.

Do you know what the Greek word for Messiah is? It's Christ. (Christos).

So, when Mark starts off his book with the line
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ...

Mark is saying: "Look! Something new! I come bearing a message: good news: our king, Jesus, is victorious!"

Indeed, the rest of the Gospel of Mark will revolve around this theme.

And it points out something very important: whereas in Isaiah's time the Messiah was promised to come some time in the future, Mark is saying, "Look, the Messiah is here now!" That's why Mark begins with the prophet Isaiah-- to say, "Hey, this is being fulfilled right now! The victory is here! We're going home!" And Mark's gospel then continues with John the Baptist pointing this out: there's a new beginning here! The kingdom of God is at hand!


But Isaiah and John say something very interesting. They say: "Prepare the way of the Lord." And, later, "Every valley shall be raised and every mountain made low." What does this mean?

Well, practically speaking, when the victorious king was coming home from battle, he would be bringing with him the spoils of war. But to go up and down mountains and valleys would be difficult and time consuming. So, on the practical side of things, both Isaiah and John are saying, "Hey, make the returning king's path easy! Help him bring back these spoils of war quickly!"

Prepare the way of the Lord: if you make His way easy, He will all the more quickly bring His victory to you.

And what is His victory? It is over sin and death and the devil Himself. It is a spiritual victory.

The mountains and valleys, therefore, are not just geographical places but the quality of our souls.

The valleys are those souls that are weighted down by their sins and maybe even wonder "can I be forgiven?" And God is saying, "Yes! Let me fill you with my grace." The valley is the soul that needs to receive.

The mountains are those souls that have grown large by their pride, and in their heights may think that God is too far beneath them, too dull or unintelligent and so on. And God is saying, "You are not beyond me. Come down from your height for I have great treasures for you, too."

Both kinds of souls-- valleys and mountains-- are being told that they will participate in the King's victory. There is but one thing necessary, and John tells us what it is: repent.


Often, we think of repentance as simply saying "I'm sorry." But in the context of our readings today, we see that repentance is actually the condition for receiving the King's victory. His victory is over sin-- repentance is the door that opens to the spoils, the treasures.

We see this beautifully in the confessional. This past week, the second graders went to First Confession and some of them were a little nervous. They go in with their heads down, but they come out with such joy! Something has happened in this moment when they are the valley that is filled with grace and the mountain that acknowledges their sin-- they receive the joy of a new beginning; their hearts become light. This is the Gospel, the evangelion, the good news.


Our Catholic Church highlights these opportunities in particular when she obliges us to go to confession once per year or when she says that a particular Mass is a Holy Day of Obligation. Take this past Friday, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, for example. The Church knows that all of us during this busy season are becoming like those valleys, low by the lack of sunlight and burdened by our to-do lists. So the Church says, "hey, there is a great opportunity for grace that can fill you up-- that will slow you down for a night and refocus your Advent and set you free on a course of peace. And that is Immaculate Conception Mass. And we've been at this for a few years and we know how much you need this great grace, so we're going to make it obligatory." And those of you who went, I know, were lifted up, filled like those valleys.

But then there were some who did not go. Not because of sickness or mandatory work, but because we let other things get the best of us or we were lazy or maybe selfish. And the Church highlights that we, the mountains, need to be lowered a bit-- that we didn't "Prepare the way of the Lord" and didn't make it easy for Him to come to us. And the Church does this by saying that if we missed-- again, not because of sickness or mandatory work, but because of our own free will-- that if we skipped the Holy Day, we can't receive Holy Communion today until we go to confession. We need to lower ourselves and acknowledge our disobedience to the king-- we need to be filled by the grace of repentance before we can be filled by the grace of holy communion.

And, I know, we may not like to hear that or we may think it's going to be embarrassing to come up in the communion line with our arms crossed. But I want to tell you that I've been there before. And I don't judge you. Neither will my deacon. In fact, none of my amazing parishioners here-- none will judge you. In fact, I will admire your courage and your honesty and your faithfulness to God and His Church. Because I will see that you take this seriously and you are letting God lower the mountains.

Indeed, the treasures of our victorious king are yours-- precisely because you are repenting.

Of course, it would be unfair of me to give such a homily without hearing confessions right after Mass. So, that's what I'm going to do. After Mass today, I'm going to go straight to the confessional and hear confessions of the mountains and the valleys. Those valleys who say, "I don't know-- could God really forgive this really big sin in my life?" Jesus is going to forgive you today. Those mountains who say, "I don't know-- does God really care about what goes on up here in my life?" Jesus is going to forgive you today.

This is what it means to "make straight his paths," to have "every valley... raised" and "every mountain... made low." This is "The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" our victorious king who brings the treasures of mercy. Let us now "prepare the way of the Lord!"

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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