On Sunday, December 6, 2015, the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill held their annual Advent Visit and Solemn Vespers at Caritas Christi, the motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill. Sister Susan Jenny presented the following reflection to those who attended.
Scripture Reading: (Baruch 5:1 – 9)
When’s the last time you read a passage from the prophet Baruch? He doesn’t show up too often in our familiar texts – in fact, only four times every three years. And one of those times is at the Easter Vigil when poor Baruch is usually one of the omitted texts, in favor of the Creation and Exodus stories and the comforting, life-affirming words of Isaiah and Paul.
Yet every year during Advent, we meet John the Baptist, that fearsome figure in the desert, and we hear his voice roaring in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It reminds us that there is more to prepare than the cookies, the presents and the decorations during this season. Yes, indeed, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord!”
Here’s the point: John the Baptist – calling us to prepare, to be ready, to change our ways – John is quoting Baruch. So, this year, I’ve spent some time with Baruch, trying to understand why his message is so prominent in Advent, albeit in a second-hand way through John the Baptist. What was going on when he issued the alert? “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths. Fill in the valleys and bring low the mountains. Make winding roads straight and rough ways smooth.”
Baruch was writing about a time (around 587 BC) when many of the Israelites had been deported to Babylonia, others had fled to Egypt and some remained behind in a land devastated by conquering enemies. The temple had been destroyed and religious observance, now focused on the Scriptures, became centered in small local gatherings. This period of forced migration – they were led away on foot, says Baruch – moved them away from their homes in Judea to the land of the Babylonians, hence the name of this time, the Babylonian Exile. Baruch was the secretary of the prophet Jeremiah, so he witnessed the time of exile, and its conclusion fifty years later, when the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Cyrus, the Persian King, ordered that all exiles be permitted to return to their homes. Note that this time away marked a full “lost generation.”
In the passage we heard today, Baruch poetically talks about Jerusalem as a rejoicing mother who knows her children are coming home. She prays first for them, acknowledging that it was their own sinful ways that brought about the Exile, and then asks them to return to God and return to their home as a new and redeemed people. When important visitors or guests were arriving, much like today, the householder made preparations to welcome them, including even the outdoor approach to a home. Trim the trees and fragrant branches. Sweep the porch, level off or fill in uneven paths. “Prepare the way!” Make the journey as smooth as possible, and welcome the travelers in joy and light, mercy and justice. To the travelers the message was clear and inviting: “Hurry home!”
Now for a moment, fast forward. It’s 2015. Here’s the scenario.
Writers record the history of a time when many people from around the globe were forced to migrate to foreign lands. Often taking only the clothes on their backs, they gathered their families around them and departed for a rumored safe place. They left lands devastated by war and violence, by drought and famine and ecological destruction, by criminal abuse and personal indignities. They had lost all hope and fled for their survival, weeping as they left behind only a remnant of the life, the culture and the promise of their homelands.
Now the Pope at that time was Francis. He invited believers to set aside “the complicity of indifference and silence” to act on behalf of these 21st century exiles. At the opening of a Year of Mercy he cried out in the contemporary wilderness, “Welcome the stranger: in them you open the doors to God. Join in the feast of encounter, sharing, and solidarity. … Do not let yourselves be robbed of the hope and joy of life born of your experience of God’s mercy, as manifested in the people you meet on your journey!”
This year, Baruch’s experience and words were reinforced by Pope Francis. I heard in new ways the call, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It challenged me to consider my own fears, my own comfort level, my attitudes that said, “Surely, you don’t mean me!” I reluctantly asked, “What must I do to smooth the way for exiles to find their way home, whether it’s back to their land of origin or to a new place under the sun? Can I make, can I be a home for them?” I will be honest and say that I cannot answer concretely yet. Yet the invitation to smooth a welcoming way for the lost and homeless, for the dispossessed and migrant, for contemporary Holy Families in flight evokes a response in me that says I can – I must – do something. I want to be able to say to them, “Hurry home!”
Finally, as I pondered the message of Baruch, I recognized that it is our inner space which is probably the most difficult to “prepare for the coming of the Lord”. Not that God ever needed an invitation. Carl Jung, the noted psychologist, once said, “Bidden or unbidden, God will come.”
So often we are exiles from ourselves, living, as the psalmist says, “in a dry and weary land,” longing for home. Our truest selves have been compromised, violated, neglected and we are strangers to ourselves. We wander – sometimes aimlessly and other times compulsively – in a place that is foreign to us.
Nevertheless, Advent is that invitation to smooth out bumpy relationships through forgiveness, to fill in potholes of bad habits with the fresh life of solid practices. To trim back what has been neglected so that new growth can happen. To stand silently before a night sky in gratitude. To breathe the calmness of Spirit’s presence. To pray a psalm slowly. To savor a cup of tea or a glass of wine shared with good company. To write a personal note instead of a text message. To give up busy-ness for a few hours of rocking chair reading. All of us have personal journeys and need to pull out the roadmaps – or chart new paths – to arrive at Christmas. Being “home for Christmas” is our most primitive, our most sacred desire. Thank God that we still have a few weeks to get there.
As a final thought, I share with you an idea of Fr. Daniel Groody, a Holy Cross priest from Notre Dame. He has developed a theology of migration, in which he frames salvation history within the numerous stories of migration, from Adam and Eve departing from the Garden to Abraham’s journey to a new land, to Moses and the Exodus, to the Babylonian Exile. In the New Testament, we see the same themes: Mary and Joseph are on the road to Bethlehem, where there was no welcome. They became refugees fleeing to Egypt to protect the life of their Child. Jesus himself was a traveler, “with no place to lay his head.” It’s an interesting frame to keep in mind as we read the Scriptures.
But here’s how Father Groody describes the Incarnation, the advent of Jesus into our story. The meaning of the Incarnation is God’s choice to leave heaven and migrate to earth – to make a new home among humanity – to journey through a life and ultimately to a death on the cross, so that all of us can, like him, migrate back to our truest homeland. There we will hear those most heart-warming words, “The door’s open. I’ve been waiting for you. Welcome home!”
Susan Jenny, SC
December 6, 2015