What do you think of when I say the words, “Oil Well Road”? Well, if you have spent any time here in Ave Maria, you know that Oil Well Road is the link to the city of Naples and to the great world beyond. If you have been around for more than just a few couple of years, you probably know that Oil Well Road has been expanded by a massive construction project. And you know that the project of widening, straightening and leveling Oil Well Road took a lot of time, effort and money.
I mention the construction project at Oil Well Road because of what we read about John the Baptist in Mark’s gospel this afternoon. Borrowing from the prophet Isaiah, the Baptist calls upon his hearers to, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” Well, gosh—how hard can that be? I mean, if the Lord wants to go somewhere, it should not be difficult for Him to get the roads He wants. I mean, He is God, after all….He just needs to snap His fingers and “POOF!” Instant 12-lane superhighway! Right? Well…no….
The way of the Lord that John the Baptist spoke of, the way of the Lord Who is coming into the world, is the way into our hearts. And that road is a mess. About the human heart the prophet Jeremiah said, “More tortuous than anything is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?” To which I would add, “Amen!” We know he is right. The road into our hearts is crooked, with plenty of detours, dead ends, littered with the debris of idols and cratered by sin.
But the reason that the season of Advent is a season of hope is because the Church proclaims that our Lord will walk into our hearts if the way is prepared for Him. Yes, yes, I know—easier said than done. I am reminded now of a friend whose little boy spilled grape juice on a white carpet. As his mother gasped in horror, he said, “Don’t worry Mommy! I’ll just magic it away!” We cannot have recourse to magic or to wishful thinking to make straight the way of the Lord into our hearts. So, how shall it be done? How about by prayer? The short answer to that question is, “Yes and No.”
The answer is “No” if we think that prayer will allow us to “magic away” what separates us from God. For example, if I think that all I need to do is to say my prayers and then, presto-change-o, abracadabra, hocus-pocus, all my attachments to sin will simply disappear, and then the Lord can just sprint into my heart and there begin His reign, then the answer is surely “No.” Prayer does not work that way. We all know that. And we all know that because we have all tried it.
So, I will ask again: Can we prepare the way of the Lord by prayer? The answer is surely, “Yes,” if we understand prayer properly. We must understand that prayer is the fuel for the engine of our discipleship, which means that prayer is the power behind apostolic action. Filling up the tank and then leaving the car in the garage gets us nowhere.
Prayer gives disciples the fuel needed to begin the necessary and hard work of reforming our lives. Prayer gives us the desire and energy we need to remove the obstacles of sin that keep our Lord from entering our hearts and from exercising His authority over our lives. To make straight the way of the Lord is a project that requires prayer, and then reform, which is a clearing away of whatever impedes to progress of God into our lives.
Today, I will mention just one impediment, one great obstacle that keeps God from realizing His reign over our lives. That obstacle is the illusion, the subtle and persistent illusion that we believe we ought to be allowed to take for granted, because we have deserve it, an ordinary life of routine, comfort and plenty.
Next week, the third movie installment of Tolkien’s great novel, “The Hobbit” will be in the theaters. I am sure that many folks here will see the movie; I will probably see it myself. While you are watching that movie, I would like you to
consider our lives here at Ave Maria. Consider, as you watch the movie, whether we think of Ave Maria as the Hobbits thought of their hometown of the Shire. The hobbits thought of the Shire as a perpetually secure place of comfortable living, where nothing exciting, important or dangerous could happen.
Keep that link in mind, the thought of Ave Maria, our hometown, university and parish, as the Hobbits thought of the Shire, their hometown. And then let’s ask ourselves whether we might be like the Hobbits, taking for granted our comfortable little lives in our comfortable little town. Now, let’s listen to a few words that C.S. Lewis wrote about that novel, “The Hobbit.” Lewis wrote: “Almost the central theme of the book is the contrast between the Hobbits and the appalling destiny to which some of them are called, the terrifying discovery that the humdrum happiness of the Shire, which they had taken for granted as something normal, is in reality a sort of local and temporary accident, that its existence depends on being protected by powers which Hobbits dare not imagine, that any Hobbit may find himself forced out of the Shire and caught up in that high conflict. More strangely still, the event of that conflict between strongest things may come to depend on him, who is almost the weakest.” So says C.S. Lewis.
Lewis, I believe, is telling us that the story of “The Hobbit” is the story of one who gives up the illusion of a presumed perpetual comfort for the adventure, drama and necessity of giving oneself in the great battle between good and evil. If we are to make straight the way of the Lord, if we are to be good stewards of the graces we may receive in prayer, then we must remove the obstacles on the Lord’s path to our heart. And one of the greatest obstacles, I believe, is the illusion that our lives are being well lived if we remain comfortable, secure, and undistracted by such weighty matters as good and evil, sin and death, hunger and glory.
We are in fact called by Christ Himself to join Him, to die and rise with Him for the life of the world. He calls us to be as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves. That call comes to us in a very particular way during the season of Advent. During this time of the year, we often come across the image the lion lying down with the lamb. The lion and the lamb together—that is not a contradiction. Rather, that is a description of the two sides of the Christian heart. One side of the Christian heart is the Lamb, Whose blood is offered in sacrifice for the life of the world. The other side of the Christian heart is the victorious Lion of Judah Who proclaims God’s honor while defending the vulnerable.
Those who would be Christians must be ready—no, not just ready, eager—to imitate Christ as both lamb and lion. Learning to live as both lamb and lion is what real repentance means. Real repentance means following in the footsteps of Christ, not merely apologizing for sin in the hopes that our moral records might be expunged by our confessor.
John the Baptist calls his hearers, including us, to repentance, to making straight the way of the Lord. And the way of the Lord is a two-way street. The path into our hearts must be cleared, so that the Lord can enter and reign supreme. At the same time, the path from our hearts must be made clear, so that we can follow our Lord into the world and join Him in His saving mission.
That sounds really hard, doesn’t it? Yes indeed! But I have hope that God, Who has already begun the good work in us, will bring it to fulfillment. Our Heavenly Father, in His Providence, has brought us together into this parish, town, and university of Ave Maria. Here He calls us to the victory over sin and death, if we unite with Him and unite with one another. Now, in this season of Advent, now, in this present darkness, now in this season of our nation and our Church, we must gladly pray, repent, forgive, unite, worship and work. Here and now, God our Lord calls us to discipleship and to victory; He calls all of us here in Ave Maria, to distinguish ourselves in the service of Christ the King, and to be a place known for truth, for mercy, for charity, for wisdom and for joy.
Too good to be true? No, not at all. God can surely bring a great harvest from what has been planted here, and He asks us to join Him in what is His will for us while we are here. Today, and for every day this week, I ask you to turn to chapter one of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Meditate on these words: “…this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” I promise that is my prayer for you; may it become our daily prayer for one another.
May God’s Holy name be praised, now and forever.
Ave Maria’s Father Robert McTeigue, S.J., preached this homily during Mass on the Second Sunday of Advent. Father McTeigue is currently finishing a collection of homilies and essays on preaching entitled, I Have Someone to Tell You: A Jesuit Heralds the Gospel. He recently began writing a weekly column, which this week will explain how to enlist the wisdom of Saint Ignatius Loyola to fight against the scourge of discouragement. Father McTeigue earnestly seeks your prayers that his life and work be to God’s greater glory – and he invites your comments.