I began a parish mission at St. Mary's in East Dubuque, IL today. Here's part of what I said in my homily for Sunday Mass.
From 1989 to 1995 I lived in western South Dakota at a place that was 13 miles off a paved road where mail delivery came 3 days a week to a mailbox that was a mile and a half from the house. The paved road was Highway 34 which runs between Pierre and Sturgis, site of an annual bike rally that swells the town's population from less than 7,000 to 250,000. It was a dangerous road because of its hills and valleys and curves. It was common to come over a hill and almost run into cattle that had gotten out of their pasture. The state decided to upgrade the road by leveling the hills and valleys and softening and straightening the curves.
Our first reading from the prophet Baruch contains a road building promise. God promised not to forget the people who had been taken into exile when Israel fell to an invading army. God promised to bring them home and even make the return easier: "God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low, and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level ground."
The gospel also speaks of road building. St. John the Baptist fulfills Isaiah's promise: "Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight...." This was done to prepare a way for the Messiah to come to his people.
Advent is our time for spiritual road building. We are to prepare a way for Christ to come at the end of time or at the end of our lives.
The hills and mountains that we level are our ego and pride. We often build ourselves up, trying to look good in front of others. How is this pride brought low? By humility. That doesn't mean putting ourselves down or beating ourselves up over our failures. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. It means not being so concerned about "ME" but turning our attention toward God and our brothers and sisters. Humility also involves gratitude by which we realize that all we are and have accomplished is a gift. We can take no credit for our success because our life and health and talents by which we have accomplished all we've done are all gifts from God. We could do nothing without those prior gifts, so all praise goes to God.
What are the valleys to be filled in? Discouragement. Discouragement never comes from God. God never uses it to motivate us. It always comes from the devil who would have us wallow in the depths of discouragement and give up. How do we fill in this valley? By living with gratitude in the present. When we look at the past and our weaknesses and failures, we get discouraged. When we look to the future and wonder how we will ever be able to stay on the good path we are on or do what we are called to do, we get discouraged. The past is over and there is no guarantee we will be here tomorrow, so it's best to live one day at a time. When we see the blessings of the present we can better overcome discouragement.
What are the curves in our life? Blessed John Paul II, in a reflection on Psalm 51, said that one of the Hebrew words for "sin" in that prayer has the connotation of "twisting" and turning and getting off track. How do we get back on track? We begin by celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation. In doing so we leave the way that points us in a different direction than the one God has laid out for us and we return to the path that leads straight to God. Reconciliation gets us back on track.
This year's Advent is special because we are celebrating it in the Year of Faith which, Pope Benedict said, "is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord." Through conversion we turn away from pride, discouragement, temptation, and sin. We turn to God. We do so with confidence because, as St. Paul wrote in our second reading: "I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus." God will complete the road building that will lead to our heavenly home, if we but let Him.