By Fr. Euly Balizar, Jr.
I ONCE had a bad stomach ache as a child and my mother made me eat a very bitter herbal medicine (a little black seed). To my surprise, the ache was gone in a few seconds. I was in awe of my mother and the bitter medicine.
Israel in our first reading painfully witnesses the ruins of her land of birth, as her people return from exile, the result, the prophet tells us, of her sins. Then the prophet cites a voice in the desert that points to a “bitter pill” Israel has to take if recovery is the goal: repentance. “A voice cries out: ‘In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God.” Once repentance becomes Israel’s path, our path, the prophet tells us the consequence: “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all the people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” No sinner becomes a saint without abandoning sin; no saint was not first a repentant sinner. To quote St. Augustine: “No saint is without a past; no sinner is without a future.”
A retreat master, preparing a group of students for confessions, said: “Many of us don’t want to admit it, but the single undeniable cause of our unhappiness is our sins. And God, in his love and mercy, gives us a way back to happiness—repentance in and through the sacrament of Penance.” In the second reading Paul the Apostle answers the objection of some Gnostic teachers who deny the doctrine of the second coming of the Lord because of its “delay”. This is not delay, Paul says, but the Lord exercising patience with us “not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance”. Again repentance is being presented as a way to avoid the cataclysmic destruction of all evil on the Lord’s Day; it is also a way to making oneself ready for the “new heavens and the new earth in which righteousness dwells”.
If there is a repentance figure in the New Testament that embodies the Advent message of preparing the way of the Lord, it is John the Baptist. He is presented in the Gospel as the voice in the desert crying out, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!” “Desert” in the Scripture is associated with preparations. Israel prepared to enter the Promised Land by spending 40 years journeying in the desert; Jesus prepared for his public ministry by fasting and praying for 40 days and nights in the desert. Advent is also a time for us, in the spirit of Carlo Caretto, to create inside us our “desert” where we spend silence in awareness of and openness to God; in solitude where we confront our sinful selves alone vis-a-vis our all-holy Lord; and in simplicity where we begin to see that the only things that matter are immaterial. Repentance is not enough though. John the Baptist tells us to turn to him who gives the Holy Spirit and thus makes us bona fide citizens of “the new heavens and the new earth”. Soren Kierkegaard once said that the wonderful thing about God is not only that he can create something out of nothing but also that he “can create saints out of sinners”.