If today were not a Sunday, we would be celebrating one of the Church’s most popular saints, Saint Nicholas, the 4th-century Greek Bishop of Myra, in what is today Turkey. Nicholas lived from 270 to 343 and became known and celebrated for his generosity. In some parts of Europe, Saint Nicholas still comes to bring gifts on the eve of his feast day – as, 34 years ago, he did for us novices at the Paulist Novitiate in Oak Ridge, NJ. Nowadays, in much of the United States, Santa Claus has already arrived in a multitude of Thanksgiving and Christmas parades, but we must still wait patiently another few weeks for his presents.
Of course, Santa Claus isn’t the only figure whose annual appearance heralds the coming of Christmas. As she always does on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, the Church today introduces us to the mysterious figure of John the Baptist, who comes out of the desert each Advent proclaiming: “Prepare the way of the Lord” [Luke 3:1-6] .
John’s message may be timeless, but Luke the Gospel writer went to great length to pinpoint precisely when in historical time John made his first appearance to announce the arrival of the salvation of God. What one notices immediately is the special solemnity of the story's language - the style of an official imperial proclamation, complete with the names of the reigning emperor and his representatives. That's Luke the historian, telling us who, what, when, and where - situating John's message in the larger sweep of human history.
The point is that, while the message itself may indeed be timeless, God’s grace and mercy come to us in real time, in the specific circumstances in which we happen to find ourselves. That was what the Prophet Baruch was explaining to the people in the sad and troubled time that followed the Temple’s destruction and Israel’s exile to Babylon [Baruch 5:1-9]. Baruch invited the people to put aside their mourning and contemplate the exiles’ return at the time of the fall festival when the autumn rains bring new life to the parched land. He portrayed the return of the exiles as if they were on a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage brought about by God alone, who is revealed in his mercy and justice.
Some 25 centuries later, we read and hear this prophecy in a world which once again is witness to a seemingly endless procession of exiles – refugees from Syria and other places where war and chaos currently destroy lives and families and the very fabric of society itself. Unlike in Baruch’s prophecy, the exiles don’t all end up in the same place. But wherever they come from and wherever they go, our obligation, as the United States’ Bishops at their November meeting have just recently reminded us is “to care for and stand with newcomers, authorized and unauthorized, including unaccompanied immigrant children, refugees and asylum-seekers, those unnecessarily detained, and victims of human trafficking” [Faithful Citizenship, 81] .
The similarities between then and now remind us that the stage on which John's solemn pronouncement is being proclaimed is not just some far-off 1st-century desert oasis but every time and place, including notably our own. As Paulist founder Isaac Hecker famously said, in the middle of another terrible war in 1863: "Our age lives in its busy marts, in counting-rooms, in work-shops, in homes, and in the varied relations that form human society, and it is into these that sanctity is to be introduced." ["The Saint of Our Day']
And that is why God’s gift of grace and message of mercy are so central to our experience here and now, which is why Pope Francis has challenged the Church to take a pause from business as usual and go on pilgrimage, like Baruch’s exiles, through the Holy Door of Mercy in this Extraordinary Jubilee, this Holy Year of Mercy, which will begin in just two more days.
For most of us, preoccupied as we inevitably are with our narrow here-and-now concerns, this Holy Year of Mercy reminds us what Advent and Christmas are actually all about - God's active movement of grace and mercy into our world. Isaiah prophesied that all flesh shall see the salvation of God, but John wants us to recognize how that future is already happening here and now in the present. And, as in Isaiah's day and as in John's, there are certainly plenty of valleys to be filled and mountains and hills to be leveled by God’s grace and mercy in our world.