I grew up in Ballwin in St. Louis County, so for me, there was always this sort of cloud of awe around the city of St. Louis, especially downtown. Actually, up until high school, I used to think that downtown actually began around Hampton Avenue! But as I got older, and especially as I started going to school in Shrewsbury and down at SLU, I had a chance to see the city more, and found it to be kind of a dump. You’ve got the area in North City around the Little Sisters of the Poor, which seemed to be destroying itself. You have the Bevo Mill in South City, which can’t seem to stay open for more than a year. Dilapidated buildings, violence, old facilities: these are the sort of things that we might associate with the city at times. But then, we see things like the newly-renovated Peabody Opera House or the new condo complexes around the old St. Joseph Shrine, and it brings some sort of pride and hope.
So imagine the Ancient Israelites hearing the words of our first reading from the Prophet Isaiah. The passage that we hear was written to the people in exile in Babylon. They had seen their city destroyed before their eyes, and were led away in chains to a distant country. Imagine the anguish of these people as they saw the Temple, the central building of their city and the focal point of their lives, torn down stone by stone. But today, the message of God offers comfort to that people, assuring them that their city would be renovated, made new, and that they would return in joy. That sense of pride that they had in their city is paired up with the love and mercy of God, who wants to bring them back.
But this message isn’t simply about the earthly city of Jerusalem – destroyed and rebuilt, destroyed and rebuilt over and over again. The people of ancient Israel probably wouldn’t even recognize it today. But the message of God, the message that John the Baptist proclaims in the Gospel is one directed to us today. And the reason is because in God’s eyes, each one of our souls is a new and holy Jerusalem, a city where God chooses to dwell. And he promises us that he has come to renovate that as well.
But as anyone in construction can tell you, renovation takes some time and preparation. Just think of Highway 40 and you know what I mean. In fact anything big takes preparation. It may not seem like it, but I’m sure the Rams prepare for the game every Sunday, and the Cardinals have been taking this time after the World Series to prepare for a new season. I’m not an artist by any stretch of the imagination, but so much preparation even goes into making a canvas suitable for painting. Sometimes we can walk by paintings and think nothing of it, but the reason that we even have them today is because of the amount of work that went into getting that canvas ready. First you have to cut a wooden frame, cut the canvas and stretch it over that frame. But then, the real work begins. You’ve got to size the canvas, putting a protective coating over it so that the paint doesn’t bleed through. Then there’s a thin layer of plaster to provide texture, color and absorbancy for the painting. Then you have the use light sandpaper to sand off the canvas and then apply another layer of that plaster. If even one step of this is skipped, then the paint will bleed through, deteriorate the canvas, and it will fall apart a few years down the line. Christ himself wants to transform us by painting a new image of Jerusalem on our hearts, but we need to take the time necessary to prepare ourselves.
If there’s one thing that I think we can learn about the construction on Highway 94, it’s that things are much easier to renovate when their flat. And in fact, the Lord tells us that this morning in the first reading. He promises to fill in the valleys and lay low every mountain in order to build the new Jerusalem. So where are those valleys and mountains in our lives? Well, if you think about valleys, they’re not really actual objects, but just places where something else is missing, namely a hill or mountain. So the valleys in our lives are those sins of omission, those things that we fail to do that becomes harmful for others. Things such as failing to say something when our coworkers or friends are gossiping about someone. Or hearing someone rail on the Church for everything under the sun, and not saying anything. Sometimes it’s something to do with our relationships like not spending adequate time with family members, especially those in need, or not taking just a few moments out of the day to offer a prayer to God or that hour a week to worship Him. These are the valleys in our lives.
So what about the mountains? Those are much more obvious things in our lives – things that we ourselves have actively and knowingly do that place a gap between ourselves and God, that break up the new Jerusalem, and that make our hearts difficult to change. With all the children’s confessions I’ve heard recently, I’m getting used to hearing about people hitting their sisters and kicking their dogs, and that sort of thing may be there in all of us. But it also includes those sinful and selfish habits that we foster in darkness and that only a few people know about.
If there’s a feeling of shame or guilt that comes along with that, that might be helpful in getting someone moving, but know that all of us struggle with spiritual valleys and mountains, and that the call for us is to do something about it. Now is the time during this season of Advent to prepare our hearts for the Lord’s renovation, most especially through the sacrament of reconciliation. Usually the Church asks us each to go once a year, but it’s not just about the rules, but also about the condition of our own hearts. And know that the priests and I will do everything we can to make that available to you as you prepare for Christmas. All you have to do is mention it, shoot me an e-mail, send me a carrier pidgeon, whatever. But as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ at Christmas, as we prepare for that renovation of the Jerusalem of our hearts, let us sincerely and prayerfully hear him speaking tenderly to us, “Comfort, Comfort, O My People.”
Please note, although the homily is original and comes from my own reflections and prayer, I was significantly inspired, in some cases directly, from some of the homilies on ePriest.com. Just so you know…