Prepare the Way of the Lord
Sermon for Advent by Fr. Mathurin de la Mère de Dieu, O.D.M.
My dear brothers and sisters, we have entered the holy season of Advent, which prepares for the great feast of Christmas. Religious feast days are grand and important, depending upon the way we prepare ourselves for them. Simply from the human standpoint, even if people often do not know exactly what they are celebrating at Christmas time, look at all the preparations they make for the feast: there is so much activity, commotion and running around, it is such a production! Everyone puts an incredible amount of energy into preparing for this feast. This is because subconsciously, at least as a tradition, Christmas is a great celebration for them. Christmas is certainly among the prominent feast days of the year. And I repeat, a feast takes on importance depending on the care we take in preparing for it.
This is the subject of today’s sermon: the preparation we must necessarily make for great feast days in general, but especially for the one we will soon be celebrating, the great feast of Christmas, the birth of the Christ Child.
The Gospel of the Last Sunday in Advent tells us of Saint John the Baptist preaching a baptism of penance in order to make ready the way for the Lord, to prepare His coming. The entire ministry, the entire mission of Saint John the Baptist can be summed up in this preparation of the way of the Lord. His life, his strength, his sanctity, his gift of prophecy were all devoted and directed to that great mission. And how did Saint John the Baptist prepare the way of the Lord? By preaching a baptism of penance and saying to the crowds, Make ready the way of the Lord, make straight His paths. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked ways shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all mankind shall see the salvation of God. (St. Luke 3:4-6)
In order that we may see the salvation of God, Saint John the Baptist consequently exhorts us to do penance. What kind of penance? The great penance to which he exhorts us is the adjustment, the “alignment” of our life. Mechanics know what wheel alignment of a vehicle means. By properly setting the direction of the front wheels, you keep the vehicle from swerving as it is moves along. Saint John the Baptist’s great message, his invitation, is that we must detach ourselves from all that goes against God, all that is crooked in our life, all that does not move in a straight line towards God.
While he preaches to us that every mountain must be brought low — in other words, the enormous mountain of our pride — he also says that every valley must be filled. It is really a characteristic of the proud persons that we are, to be smug and enthusiastic over ourselves one day, but totally downcast the next. As much as we can be content with ourselves, to the same degree we can also find ourselves depressed and down in the dumps because we have realized how miserable we are, and have become aware that we are “nothing special,” as they say. Because of pride, we go up and down like this… and we run along crooked pathways. Saint John the Baptist says: Straighten out all of that, make smooth the way of the Lord, go against these tendencies in order to recognize the salvation of God.
In a few days we will be celebrating the beautiful feast of Christmas. In order to recognize the Infant Jesus and be capable of contemplating Him, I would say in order that He may manifest Himself to us, my brothers and sisters, we must work at straightening out our behavior and our entire life. Making straight the way of the Lord also means being attentive to God’s action in our life, to the manifestation of His most holy Will, in order to conform and adjust to it. Jesus wants to manifest Himself to the world, and specifically to each one of us, in a very personal manner.
In a way, the Advent season is a lot like purgatory. Purgatory is a place of penance, purification, rectification and adjustment. By the sufferings of purgatory, everything that was crooked in our life, everything that was rough, is made straight and smooth.
According to the teaching of many Saints, the greatest suffering in purgatory results from the fact that souls clearly see all that has displeased God in their lives. They realize that they have opposed God’s infinite love in spite of all His manifestations of goodness and mercy towards them, in spite of His Divine Providence which has always tended to their needs. This realization, this experience of God’s infinite love, is what constitutes the greatest torment of the souls in purgatory. God had planned the life of each one of them to lead them to a high degree of sanctity, and they have the immense sorrow of not having corresponded to the kindness of such a good God. That is their greatest torment.
This means that the suffering of purgatory is essentially a suffering of love. These souls are in love, smitten with God; they are pained beyond words, so that even if God told them, “Come and join Me,” they would be unable to do so, for they feel too unworthy of His Love. They suffer over it; this suffering consumes them, and it consumes whatever is contrary to God. But this love which makes them suffer is a love without freedom, for at the moment of death, the soul is established for eternity. Whatever a person did in full freedom during his lifetime is fixed for eternity. After our death, we can no longer choose between good and evil, between the love of God and love of self, creatures or the world. In purgatory there is no more freedom.
And, my brothers and sisters, this is the parallel I would like to draw between purgatory, which is a time of penance, and Advent, which is also a time of penance. Why not do the same thing that the holy souls in purgatory do, but in full freedom, truly by an act of the will, a free act of love: “O Lord, freely, by an act of my will, I want to suffer from whatever displeases You in my life. I want to strive to feel sorrow over whatever is contrary to Your Will in my life.” This is not a negative pain, it is a pain of love.
The Child Jesus will soon be here. He wants to manifest Himself to me. Have I straightened out my ways? Unfortunately not. There are so many crooked elements in my life, so many things that are perhaps contrary to the love of God — not always in grievous matters. Let us consider everything that will have to be purified in purgatory, everything that would be unworthy of going directly to heaven at the moment of our death. All that is unworthy of God requires a purification.
Let us have this sorrow which is not simply a natural one, this sorrow over having had pleasure on earth to God’s detriment. Let us cultivate this pain, this regret, with views of faith. That is what the souls in purgatory do, but without the merit of freedom. To prepare the way of the Lord, I freely want to cultivate this sorrow, which is my first penance, and to rectify what displeases God.
Let us diligently prepare for the beautiful celebration of Christmas. Let us say to Jesus, “Lord, You are going to come, and I want so much to penetrate Your divine mysteries, I want so much to be in communion with You, enter into Your intimacy, conform to Your good pleasure in all things. But oh!… I have all my human and natural tastes, which are contrary to You. At least let me feel sorrow over them.” Let us apply ourselves to this pain of love. The Child Jesus left His heaven for love of us. He wants to communicate His wisdom to us. But how will we be able to grasp His lessons if we remain so earthbound?
People often say, “I don’t feel any sorrow at all for opposing God.” True contrition is a grace. We must ask God for these sentiments of true contrition: “O Lord, give me sorrow and regret for all that displeases You in my life, as much in the little details as in the greatest faults; deign to grant me this grace!” Think well that in purgatory, without freedom, this state of suffering purifies souls and brings them to the degree of sanctity to which God had destined them. And now imagine the effect these same acts of love, made in full freedom, have on the Heart of God.
The Church compares these four weeks of Advent to the four thousand years of waiting, to humanity’s aspiration for the coming of the Messiah. And that is what our Advent ought to be, my brothers and sisters: a state of aspiration towards God, the Divine Child who is coming. Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus has us sing: “And for my purgatory I choose Thy burning love, O Heart of my God.” Our spiritual mistress teaches us that it is the burning love of God that ought to be our purification, our purgatory.
This love is not exempt from suffering. It is a love that gives pain, but at the same time fills us with joy.
There is a paradox here, which we can understand a little if we consider human love. When you love someone, you suffer, but at the same time you experience the joy of loving. Suffering and joy are both present, and sometimes it is hard to say which one is greater, the suffering or the joy. This is the case because the earth is not heaven; someday, in heaven, happiness will be unalloyed, unaccompanied by any suffering.
Dear brothers and sisters, I invite you in a special way to recollect yourselves before Christmas and not let yourselves get distracted, while still remaining active and present to your duty. Let us prepare for the coming of the Child Jesus in the company of the Holy Mother of God and good Saint Joseph. Let us be attentive to Jesus and think of compensating for humanity, which generally prepares for Christmas in frivolity. But instead of casting stones and saying, “Oh, people are so superficial!” let us say instead, “Lord, forgive them, for they do not know the great Mystery of Christmas. I myself ought to know it, and yet how distracted, superficial and heedless I am! I still let myself be dazzled by all the tinsel. Forgive me, and help me to prepare well for Your coming.”
Christmas will be a heavenly day for us in the measure that we have set aside everything that displeases God, all the vain quests for earthly pleasures and consolations. Let us recall this inspired formula that our Father gave us: “When the earth fails us, Heaven bends down.”
This is the grace I ask for myself and each one of you: that we may be attentive to the Child Jesus who is coming. Let us prepare the way of the Lord so that we may know the salvation of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, and of the Mother of God. Amen.
This article has been published in Magnificat Magazine, December 2004, Editions Magnificat, Mont-Tremblant QC Canada