God never shows up at the door unannounced. He knows that there might be cat hairs all over the living room couch and that the kids probably left their gym shoes and sweatshirts in the den and that you fully intended to have those leaves on the front lawn raked up over the weekend, so he always phones ahead to save his faithful even mild embarrassment. Well, God does not exactly phone ahead, but he always makes his appearances known well ahead of time. He chooses not to catch his people off guard.
In the opening verses of St. Mark’s Gospel account, to be read at Mass this coming Sunday, the evangelist blends three Scriptural announcements of God’s anticipated arrival into human history and of God’s thoughtfulness in sending advanced notice of his awesome advent. The ancient Jews, as is known, had a challenging trek through the desert to arrive at the Promised Land. The book of Exodus (23:20) reveals that God prepared his people for their new homeland and for their eventual union with him in Canaan through the guidance of a special messenger, a unique voice, an angel: “See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and obey him. Do not rebel against him, for he will not forgive your sin. My authority is within him.”
Again, in the writings of Isaiah (40:3), God tips off the Israelites in exile in Babylon that God would soon be near and that they should prepare for his entrance into their lives once again: “A voice proclaims: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” A little later in history, when the Jews had returned from Babylon and were getting settled in Jerusalem, the prophet Malachi (3:1) predicts help arriving from God to assist the Jews in their resettlement and in rebuilding Jerusalem’s temple for God’s arrival. “Now I am sending my messenger—he will prepare the way before me; And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple; The messenger of the covenant whom you desire—see, he is coming! says the LORD of hosts.”
So God once sent an angel to the Jews in the desert; then God sent a voice to the Jews in Babylon; and God then sent a messenger to the Jews resettling the Holy Land. And now, preparing for the new dispensation, God sends John the Baptist: “John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:2).” John is not the message; he is simply the messenger. It will be through Christ that a further revelation will take place: “I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (Mk.1:8).”
God as Father fully recognizes how scattered the attentions of his human family can be. The Jews in the Sinai desert had much to worry them. The Jews in Babylon had no end of distractions. And the Jews recently re-settled in Judea were quite hassled. So, angels, voices and messengers were sorely needed to recall the Chosen People’s hearts and minds to the matter at hand. God was about to arrive powerfully into their midst and they had better be on their toes, or better still, on their knees to recognize, to accept and to know their loving God upon his arrival.
During the Christian era, the liturgical season of Advent is those weeks during which believers are warned to focus more pointedly on exactly who is about to enter their lives. The solemn purple décor of the church’s trappings and vestments vividly announces that something or someone different is on his way. The daily and Sunday Scripture readings for Advent recall God’s previous arrivals in salvation history and indicate that a new Divine entrance is about to occur. The Christian community itself, avoiding the secularity of the “holiday season,” may graphically announce the nearness of God by their selection of Christmas cards and Christmas decorations, allowing shepherds and Wise Men more prominence than snowmen and reindeer. Making sure a manger scene is prominently displayed in the home is an explicit evocation of the great events to come. Deliberate acts of charity toward the needy are always a herald of God’s nearness. And of course, participation in a Christmas Mass (even when it comes on a Monday) is the grandest indication that God is becoming powerfully present to his people once again. With the whole Christian community as herald, the words of Isaiah (40:5) will indeed be fulfilled: “Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Come Lord Jesus!