Lift Up Your Hearts: Prepare the Way of the Lord

These words of St. John the Baptist ring in our ears during the Advent season. We hear him loudly proclaiming that Christ is coming.

He tells us to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3). As we said last week, what we await during this season is the coming of the savior in history, in mystery and in majesty.

Of course the Hebrew people had been awaiting the coming of the Messiah for thousands of years. That is a long time to await the salvation of humanity compared to us who, on the other hand, spend four weeks awaiting the celebration of Christmas. The Advent season is a time of waiting and preparing for the Lord to come. Materially we are putting up all the decorations, buying presents, listening to Christmas music and watching Christmas movies. Normally our Decembers would be filled with children’s Christmas programs and parties as well. Things may be a little quieter this year, but that may not be a bad thing. Maybe it will help us, like the Hebrew people, to anticipate the real reason for the celebration that we prepare for. The coming of Christ.

As we prepare we place ourselves alongside the Hebrew people in their expectation of the Messiah. We prepare the way for his coming. There are many ways that we can do that. During the season of Advent there were a lot of beautiful traditions that we followed as a family. I remember always having an Advent wreath in the middle of our dining room table. We lit the candles on Sundays during Advent, lighting another candle each week to symbolize the growing light and joy as Christmas approached. We would also read short meditations and prayers, which helped us to prepare and to grow in our joyful anticipation of the coming celebrations.

The Advent wreath tradition is a plain evergreen wreath with four candles within the wreath in a circle. There are three violet candles and one rose candle. The violet color in the liturgy symbolizes a time of prayer, penance and sacrifice. The rose color symbolizes joy. Sometimes there is also white candle that is placed in the middle of the wreath, which symbolizes purity as Christ’s birth offers us the hope of his cleansing. The four outer candles are lit one at a time on the four Sundays of Advent leading up to the Solemnity of Christmas Day.

There is also a tradition that says that each of the four candles of the Advent wreath represents 1,000 years to symbolize the 4,000 years from Adam and Eve to the birth of Christ. Thus, the Advent wreath is a way that we spiritually place ourselves along the long journey that the Hebrew people made as the Lord led and prepared them for the moment that he would come to save the world. So we take on the attitude of waiting, knowing that he is coming, with a joyful and hopeful expectation. As the first purple candle is lit we are reminded of the hope that all the prophetic promises gave the Hebrew people throughout the years. That is why the first candle is called the Prophet’s Candle and calls us to prepare through the virtue of hope. On the second Sunday of Advent, we light the second violet candle.

This candle reminds us of the faith of Mary and Joseph as they begin their journey toward Bethlehem. That is why this candle is called the Bethlehem Candle and calls us to the virtue of faith. On the third Sunday of Advent we light the rose-colored candle. This Sunday is also referred to as Gaudete Sunday, a Latin word meaning ‘rejoice!’ We are reminded of the joy given to the shepherds upon the announcement of Jesus’ arrival. This candle is called the Shepherd’s Candle calling us to be joyful. The third violet candle is lit on the fourth Sunday of Advent. This candle is called the Angel’s Candle reminding us of the message given by the angels, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” This candle calls us to embrace the peace that Christ has come to bring with his saving action on the cross.

There is so much rich symbolism in the Advent wreath and knowing a little more about it can help us prepare more fully for the graces that Jesus wants to give us and that He came to give us. The challenge really lies in the actions we take to prepare. The passage from Isaiah continues “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:3-5).

This imagery that the prophet uses points us toward the work that needs to be done in order to speed along the Lord’s entrance into the world, to make the pathway, to smoothen what is rough, to fill in the valleys and make the hills and mountains low. Most importantly this passage is really speaking of our hearts. In order for us to receive Jesus, we must prepare our hearts. We are to smoothen the rough edges, to repent of the sins we have committed, to detach ourselves from what is worldly and selfish and to attach ourselves to the hope and the life that is found in him. I am reminded of the song “Joy to the World,” which reminds us to “prepare him room.” There was no room for the Lord in the inns of Bethlehem, but perhaps he can find more room in your heart. Take the time this Advent season to prayerfully and joyfully prepare your heart for the coming of Jesus. Look for the many ways that he comes to you in every moment. Prepare, prepare the way of the Lord.