Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
We hear this phrase in several places during Advent:
In the Fore-Office before Morning and/or Evening Prayer as one of the Advent sentences to begin prayer with.
The Monday after the First Sunday of Advent, at Morning Prayer, we begin Mark's Gospel for Advent. That morning we hear this line, Mark 1:3, in reference to St. John the Baptist
We'll hear this line in its original context, in Isaiah the Prophet on Tuesday evening of Advent III at Evening Prayer, Isa. 40:3
There are two major notes to make on this phrase:
1. The meaning of "Prepare"
2. The meaning of "Ye"
Traditionally we speak of Christ coming in many ways; here I'll outline four advents of Christ:
1) His First Coming in The Incarnation
2) His Second Coming at The End of Days
3) His Coming into our hearts at Baptism
4) His Coming into our hearts in fullness when we are made perfect
The first can be thought about as an interested article of past Christian history. One that is celebrated with great music, late night Masses, and lots of hearty drinks and meats the day after. The second is largely feared and ignored by English speaking Catholics as something terribly dreadful to speak of at lunch, little alone from a pulpit. The third we take for granted now though a resurgence in Baptismal Theology occurred a century ago and thrived for about three-quarters of a century. Now it seems like an arid piece of doctrine to recite, in hopes that if we say it enough maybe it will come true without any work on our part to listen for him.
And this gets at the fourth sense. When we are told to prepare the way in our hearts but how do we do this?
Here we must resurrect a very simple distinction between an Act of Virtue and a Habitual Virtue. Acts of Virtue are a single deed done formed in a virtuous way, e.g. a courageous or faithful act. A Habitual Virtue is where your deeds by your disposition tend to come out that way. The former require hard work, intention, and a Rule of Life. The latter are like second nature to us, like breathing or tying a shoe, one 'thinks about it without thinking about it.'
The simplest Rule comes from Acts 2:42:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
The Breaking of the Bread is The Mass
The Prayers are The Daily Office
The Apostles' Teaching/Doctrine is Dogma and Doctrine
Fellowship is the Body of Christ we work out our Faith in and with. For this reason it is a "context," but not a fourth point on the basic Rule of Life for a Christian.
The average layman trying cultivate the spiritual life has only to look at these three in the context of the Church to reflect on their spiritual growth or decline. How often do you go to Mass? Where is your mind when you're there? How often do you say your prayers? Do you want to pray? How is your disposition when doing so? St. Aelred was a Cistercian. The Cistercians had a common saying, "not to long for progress is to fail in prayer." Personal devotion includes items like The Rosary, personal fasts, abstentions, The Jesus Prayer, etc. The Mass is the union of God and His People, which pours out into The Prayers which are God's People responding to The Shepherd's voice, which pours out into personal prayer which is a member of the body seeking more intimate union with The Vine.
The Goal of the Rule of Life is Recollection. "Recollection" is, to be brief, "to walk before The Lord thy God" or "a habitual awareness of God in one's life that drives them to holiness." For this reason a Rule of Life should be honest, fit the soul of the Christian, and should cultivate both the intellect and affections of the Christian. By this Rule then, The Christian is moved to "prepare" the way in their hearts for Christ. When all do it, in say a Church bound Advent fast, the preparation is not a single member preparing for Christ, but the whole body.
"Ye" is the 2nd person plural, formal in sacral English. It is the equivalent of "y'all," except "y'all" ain't exactly holy English. If you'll recall "you" is the 2nd person singular, formal. So you might call a stranger or acquaintance "you," while a group of strangers or acquaintances "ye." For example, think of the Christmas hymn, "God rest ye merry gentlemen." Notice if it was a gentleman, it would be you, but because it's gentlemen it's ye.
Thus Isaiah the Prophet and St. John the Baptist is commanding the group, Israel, The Church, to prepare the way. This is a eucharistic call, a communal call to prayer, fasting, and mortification, to make room for Christ in our hearts. As one of our hymns says:
Then cleansed be every breast from sin
Make straight the way of God within
And let each heart prepare a home
Where such a mighty guest may come
--On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry; Tr. John Chandler, 1837
This is the importance of The Church returning to parochial fasts for Advent. If we are to hear the cry of The Baptist at Mass for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent, and at The Daily Office, then it has an immediate, practical tenant for the spiritual life -- my individual spirituality has a larger context. Whereas we are apt to think our individual, spiritual life comes first, both Acts, the Church's tradition on Rule of Life, and our functional, liturgical life all reveal that the corporate acts of The Church: Mass and The Office, are more powerful and more important than personal acts of piety. The Mass saves the world, the Rosary and Grace before meals is optional. Both are holy, but one is greater. The Church insists upon a unique vocation for each individual person, but she also reminds us that characters come out of communities, and not the other way around.
So when St. John the Baptist says "Prepare Ye the way of the Lord" he is talking to Christians today not as an aggregate of individuals, but as "y'all," the body of Christ. For this reason we see him attracting the many to the desert to:
Repent: contrition, confession, penance
Bear good fruit
This is the true preparation for Christmas. We prepare to receive Christ, to cultivate a habitual Recollection, by keeping to our Rule of Life in a special way this Advent. We follow John, Isaiah, Elijah, and all the prophets to move from the beginner stage in the spiritual life, to the proficient stage: the stage of purgation. This is done today as it's always been done, through fasting, repentance, and only then are we free to bear good fruit. This is why it does not say prepare "a way," but prepare "the way." God sets the path, He is the way in Christ Jesus. Our job is not to make up our own corporate actions, but to receive what was revealed, and to humbly and obediently follow it. There alone will be find our true joy.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God!
(Painting: Elijah in the Desert; 1818, by Washington Allston, South Carolina painter)