Second Sunday of Advent • Year C

Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Bar 5:1-9
Ps 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6.
Phil 1:4-6, 8-11
Lk 3:1-6

As every student of history knows, the Romans were great builders of roads. Roads held their empire together, spreading Roman civilization and the Pax Romana across three continents. From London to Dover, from Cadiz to the Pyrenees and on into France, across the Alps from Venice and Milan into Switzerland and Germany, the Romans built roads that are still used today.

The object of all this building was the shortest, easiest trip, and the means were straight roads: roads over which armies could move swiftly, roads down which commerce could flow easily, roads that could bring the word of the Senate and the Emperor from the Eternal City to the smallest village in farthest outpost of the empire. To look at a map of Roman roads is to look at the veins of civilization, the sluices of earthly power.

But in that far off year, the word of God did not come to the master of the roads, the emperor Tiberius. The word of God did not come to Pontius Pilate, the emperor’s representative in Judea. The word of God did not come to Herod or Philip or Lysanais. The word of God came to John, a man not of the roads but of the desert, a man living beyond paved paths. John was literally an “off-track man,” a prophet from a world without milestones or way stations.

And the word of God which came to John said this: The maps are about to change. Treacherous mountains soon will be flat. Inaccessible valleys soon will be raised. Where once roads

snaked back and forth around irresistible stones and immovable hills, and edged along cliffs and under crags, soon the highways will be flat and straight.

John the Baptist proclaims that God intends to outdo the Empire. The days are coming when the whole world will be a road, when a highway will not be the exception but the rule, when roads of concrete and stone will look crude and arduous in comparison with the smooth deserts and the level fields.

But why? Can it be a good thing for the whole world to be a road? No more mountains – neither Rockies nor Poconos? No more hills – neither Capitol Hill nor Cherry Hill? Deserts may be inhospitable, but are they not possessed of a special beauty? Valleys may be hard to cross, but do their recesses and tangles not add to the glorious texture of the earth? What of the beauty of the Grand Canyon and the marvel of the Matterhorn? Is John’s proclamation in fact a curse fulfilled in our hearing, as clanking progress heralds another piece of the world paved over? Do we not see around us the Baptist’s vision come horribly true, as roads and parking lots and sidewalks make the world ever more conveniently smooth, and ever less interesting, ever less beautiful? Will God who made the earth round now make it flat? Will the “age-old depths and gorges” give way, as “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth”?

The more we wonder, the clearer it becomes that John is not talking about roads. He is talking about the human heart. He is talking about our souls. Such twisting, turning paths there are in every human heart as to make the steepest, stoniest mountain trail a surveyor’s dream. The landscape of our souls holds such sin-choked valleys and prideful mountains as to make an engineer quake at our terrible topography. The Romans set down roads across the Alps and through the marshes and deserts of North Africa. But their roads, and their gods, were powerless against the depths and crags of human sin. A man could move swiftly down those roads, but at journey’s end still be stuck in his sin, not an inch closer to God than when he set out.

John proclaims that God will outdo the Romans. God will lay a road into every human heart. John the Baptist has come to start clearing the ground, to wield the axe and the sickle, to call men and women to repentance. John proclaims that God Himself is coming to deal with the marshes and deserts and mountains of the human heart. John proclaims that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” because Jesus Christ is close at hand, and between his good news of salvation and every human heart there will be no rough ground, no broken bridge, no winding path to leave the pilgrim footsore and in despair of the journey’s end. Christ is the master road builder, who surveys the ground of each human heart and pushes aside every obstacle and flattens every obstruction. When his roads are done, none of us will be far from the Father. Christ’s mercy will make our hearts smooth, Christ’s forgiveness will make our confused thoughts straight, Christ’s obedience and sacrifice and suffering and death will challenge every roadblock that our vanity and pride can erect.

Why else do we put up a crucifix in every church, if not that Christians may see how far Christ’s love goes, and so let that love overcome the rough ground of fear? Why else put up a Nativity scene, if not that Christians may see how far God’s love goes, to casting off his glory and being born in a stable, and so let that love make a track through the jungle thickness of anger, selfishness, envy, and greed? Why else come among us again and again under the signs of bread and wine, if not that Christ may feed our weary pilgrim hearts and move us by his example to feed the hungry in our midst?

This Advent, God has begun a good work in us, the work of a road builder for whom no heart is impassable. In this book and on that altar, God lays out the plans and the tools. The construction is painful. Grace requires excavation, digging up and pushing away stony obstacles. Sometimes only dynamite is equal to the task. It is not easy to build a road in the rough terrain of the human heart – not easy on the builder, who died in order to complete the work, and not easy on us, who must die to our sinful selves if we wish to see the salvation of God.

This is our joy and our hope: Christ does not only build the road, he travels it. He makes our way smooth and straight, then he comes down that road and walks by our side. He who was born and lived and died with us travels with us still. This is what makes the road straight and wide, this is what makes the mountains flat and the valleys full, this is what truly makes the twisting roads straight: we do not travel alone. God is with us.