Advent might be a time for silence—but don’t get too comfortable.
The other week at Mass, we heard Luke quoting Isaiah:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
This passage always struck a discordant note in my ears. I live in a glorious spot where the hills and valleys roll so graciously, it would break your heart. Even the most hardened utilitarian melts and becomes a romantic conservationist in the lap of so much beauty.
And so every time I hear these verses, I wince because I love my mountains and valleys. How harsh, how destructive, to even think of filling them, making them low, turning those sweetly winding roads straight. I know it is just a metaphor, but when you are standing there in front of the actual landscape that God himself made, Isaiah’s words are a hard sell. My brain squawks a protest that God would never mess with nature like that. It’s too pretty!
“Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” How is that good?
It is especially hard to rightly receive this passage at Christmastime, when we are focused on making everything look lovely and picturesque, calm and bright. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low.” How is that good? How does it make sense as part of the quiet, pensive landscape of Advent, as we slowly count down with our little chocolate calendars?
But then I think about where I am standing as I delight in the loveliness of my familiar landscape. More likely than not, I'm enjoying the view from a road that was cleared through granite with dynamite. I bask in the beauty of the mountains and valleys even as I zip between long corridors of striated cliffs that have been blasted away to make room for my journey. That is where the road goes when I head up to the mountains that lie between my home and, for instance, the hospital: Straight through.
To a sentimental bystander, it is a terrible shame to even think of knocking down those pretty hills and straightening that gently winding path. But to the patient whose heart is failing, it is a damned good thing those roads got blasted through because now the ambulance can get past. Pristine and intact is not good enough. As long as someone is actually going to live there and stay alive, we will need to do some blasting; and then we will find out what belongs and what does not, what is intrinsic to the landscape and what is not.
The right prayer for Advent is this: I may not be ready, Lord, but I am waiting.
Isaiah was talking about the incarnation and also about the second coming. But he is also talking about our own individual rocky ways, our own personal mountains and valleys that must be straightened, smoothed, filled—and, yes, sometimes violently blasted away because they are keeping the Lord from coming to us, lights flashing, sirens blaring. It was violent when they cleared our highways through the rock. It was perilous and cataclysmic. But it was also done artfully, taking away only what needed to be taken away. The landscape was not laid to utter waste. It was not made into rubble or ruin. Instead, it was made to suit a good and true purpose.
I have not lived an especially tragic or dramatic life. But like everyone, I have suffered losses and privations, and I have also had burdens lifted and obstacles removed. Strangely enough, the latter—the lifting of burdens and the removal of obstacles—was often more violent and painful and less welcome than the overt trials. Why? For so much of my life, oh how badly I have simply wanted to be left alone, undisturbed. I have wanted to live out my days among the familiar highs and lows of my familiar life, suffering comfortably, crumbling slowly, resisting disruption, wincing at the very thought of change. Slowly eating little chocolates as I count down my days.
But to meet Christ is to be disrupted.
Every year Advent begins, and every year the prophets holler: Watch out! He is on his way! Year after year, I mistake the calm and quiet of Advent for a picturesque, postcard kind of silence; but every once in a while, I manage to hear what the prophets are really saying and to understand what kind of silence it is. It is the silence of a countdown before the blasting begins. And the right prayer is this: I may not be ready, Lord, but I am waiting.
The Lord has warned us that the earth will crumble away to dust one day, and so will we. Those mountains will be leveled eventually, like it or not. It is only a matter of whether it happens now, while we live, or after we die. And how are we living our lives while we wait for that inevitable cataclysm to come? Where are we putting our energy? Into preserving our familiar landscapes just because they are familiar? Or are we steeling ourselves for the dynamite?
That is what the season of Advent and the long Advent of every individual life really is: a countdown before the blasting begins. The best Advent prayer I know is this: Jesus, you know what belongs in my life and what does not. What does not belong, come now, and blast it away.