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:
I. In the Fore-Office before Morning and/or Evening Prayer as one of the Advent sentences to begin prayer with.
II. 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
III. 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:
I. The meaning of "Prepare"
II. 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 of as an interesting 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 through 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 to 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 requires hard work, intention, and a Rule of Life. The latter is 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.
I. The Breaking of the Bread is The Mass
II. The Prayers are The Daily Office
III. The Apostles' Teaching/Doctrine is Dogma and Doctrine
Fellowship is the Body of Christ, the who and where 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 to 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 a 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. As the famous Advent hymn sings,
Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
prepare we in our hearts a home
where such a mighty Guest may come.
The preparation then is primarily not our homes, but ourselves. Christ comes as Guest to dwell in our souls. Are we making our souls ready? If the home and seasonal decor and food and all this makes some anxious and detract from one preparing their souls for the Divine Guest, then this person ought not engage in the rest. But it is important to note that many customs, externals, are meant to assist in the preparation of the internal. This is not to be an external-internal dualism, but an intellectual distinction to help us make delineations when living out Advent. Ultimately, physical practices are what shape the soul. Just don't get so caught up in "I have to do this for Advent" in a legalistic manner that it fails to actually prepare the soul. It's important to note here that the Ecclesia Domestica is a 'homely church' or a 'churchy home' because of the persons, and not the arts and crafts and junk we print out in trying to be liturgical. At the same time, avoid over reaction in not preparing one's home or physical reality at all in the name of some dualistic spirituality that disguises laziness. Say your prayers, repent, prepare for Christ to dwell with you by avoiding sin and cultivating virtues. These are the adornments Christ wants most.
"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 y'all will 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 "God rest you merry gentleman," but because it's gentlemen it's ye.
Thus Isaiah the Prophet and St. John the Baptist is commanding the group, Israel historically, & the New 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. Take a look again at that verse from Jordan's Bank for Advent:
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 possibly daily 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, Acts of the Apostles, 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, some kind of personal prayer is necessary but the Rosary and Grace before meals are good but 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 The Church wants corporate Mass and personal piety, but she prioritizes them and establishes that one pours out of the other. In other words, "choosing" personal piety over corporate worship is a sign one has gone astray in their ethical formation.
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:
I. Repent: contrition, confession, penance
II. Fast, mortification
III. 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 and 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. In other words, too much obsession with crafting your own Advent experience seems antithetical to The Church's Story. It reeks of Enlightenment, Liberal Protestant theology.
Not only then is Christ the gift of Life that comes to us in Christmas, he is also the Way, the means by which we prepare. How did God command John the Baptist to prepare for Christ's coming? How does the Church's lectionary use John the Baptist to have us prepare? Advent preparation then is less looking around the world and seeing what they do, less fear of missing out on "joy" like it's some sensual pleasure rather than the fruit of charity, and more conforming our stories to the Story of Christ, that our lives might be made intelligible to ourselves and others in the body of Christ. This is the difference between "choosing" and "discerning." One makes up stuff, the other discovers what's already been laid out by The Divine. To do so we must be Catholics first, and Americans second. Our customs must be guided primarily by The Church and not by The State. Only then will we have something to preach to the Nations, that The LORD is coming, and we ought to prepare.
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)