A man told a story about how as a boy he had been strongly affected by a nature walk. To get to school every morning, he had to cross a park. One day, a science teacher took the whole class out there and began to point out many different marvels of nature the boy had never noticed. How the roots of the trees connected underground with roots of other trees and so were able to nourish each other. How the different shades of green were triggered off by the action of the sun. And still more wonders. The man recalled that even though he had walked through this same park hundreds of times, he never did with his eyes so opened to what was really there. What the teacher had done was prepare him to see. She had given him a way to notice more of what was there.
This theme of somebody preparing a way runs through the Advent scriptures. It’s what John the Baptist is doing, preparing us to see. Better, he’s alerting us to Who is just ahead of us and Who is already among us, the Lord Jesus, here in His Spirit. John is striving to wake us up to traces of God’s own Self in the here and now we might otherwise miss. But especially does John also wants to alert us to that same divine presence summoning us from the future.
These signals of God’s nearness could be happening outside of us, for instance in the selflessness of volunteers and emergency care workers during the pandemic. Or in the generous efforts of many people in our cities to end homelessness. But they could also be going off inside us, as in the hardly registered feelings of sympathy rising up from within at the sight of refugee families camped at all those borders.
Pope Francis presents a riveting image of hope that touches on these barely noticed impulses. Hope, he says, is “a push in the back of peoples’ hearts” that urges them to step out toward a better but yet mostly unknown life. Can we remember when proddings like these stirred us to move toward such an appealing but misty future?
Advent is a time for preparing to see, to notice not only what of God is around us right now but just as much what of God is just up ahead. The words and colors of the season would heighten our awareness of graced calls we could easily miss. John the Baptist prepares us to sense these different touches of Divine presence. He would help us notice these easily overlooked paths of discipleship not only as they appear in the present, but especially as they beckon from the future.
In another place, St. Paul speaks directly to this same theme: seeing more and seeing better. He tells us “it’s love which opens our eyes,” love which deepens our perception about what matters more in God’s eyes and what matters less. (Phil 1:9-10) Preparing the Way of the Lord would have us notice what and where that “Way” is, the Way of Christian discipleship summoning us to God’s own future.
In a talk on prayer, Vincent too counsels preparation. “Before going to meditation, prepare your soul…It is quite reasonable we give a little thought to what we are about to do… and before whom we are going to present ourselves. (Vol 11, p 359)
Prepare the Way of the Lord. And prepare to discern that Way.