A few years ago, I made a trip up to Rockford, Illinois for the ordination of a friend from the seminary. It was the first real road trip I had taken by myself, and at around 6 hours, it was pretty hefty! I made it fine and had a great visit, but as I was preparing to leave, my cell phone turned suicidal and leaped from my hand to its death down a flight of stairs. That cell phone had all my maps, all my phone contacts, all my music for the way home, and the only thing I had in my car to help was a map of Missouri – and I wasn’t in Missouri! The cathedral was in the middle of a suburb, and I had no idea where I was or how to get home. I wandered around the city of Rockford, trying to figure out where to go, and vaguely remembering the roads I had used to get there. It was pretty nerve wrecking. I had some kind of kung fu death grip on the steering wheel, and all I could do was just pay attention to my surroundings and pray the heck out of that Rosary. I think St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers was pretty fed up by the time I was done. I was terrified, and all I wanted to do was get home.
I would say that that’s probably the closest experience I have to being an exile. Exile is probably not an easy thing for us to connect with. The closest thing might be a husband having to sleep on the couch. But imagine if you took a trip, such as to Europe or something, and when you were getting ready to come home, you were informed that something terrible had happened at home, and you were unable to return home. Imagine how you’d feel! Maybe the place you’d travelled to was fun – like Cancun or maybe Rome (think of all the liturgical vestment shopping you could do!) – but soon it would sink in that you can’t go home. That part of your life would be missing.
The reason I bring this up is to help you understand what exile is like. The Babylonian Exile, that period of history where Israel was forced into captivity by the Babylonian Empire, was a defining period for the Israelite people. Imagine their sorrow at being in captivity away from home. I think Psalm 137, one of my favorite psalms, sums it up wonderfully. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat weeping when we remembered Zion. For there our captors asked us for the words of a song. Our tormentors for joy: ‘Sing for us a song of Zion!’ But how could we sing the song of the Lord in a foreign land.” The Israelites dreamt of going home, but realized that it was impossible. Their captors the Babylonians were taunting them, trying to get them to sing a song of their homeland. But imagine the disgust at this request. “How could we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil!” They were faced with one of two things: giving up and forgetting about home – and many of the Israelites did this – or continue to hope and have faith.
Well, that’s where our first reading from Baruch comes in. He was Jeremiah’s secretary, although if you’ve ever read the Book of Jeremiah and seen how seemingly disorderly it is, maybe he wasn’t the best secretary. But he also wrote his own book, which we read today. Baruch writes to the Israelites about going home. He tells them, “It’s time to take off your robe of mourning and misery.” He talks about what it will feel like to return home – heads held high, borne aloft as on royal thrones. They will be people of joy and triumph born by the hand of God. And it’s more than just wandering home, trying to figure out where to go. He says the Lord will fill in the valleys and level all the hills, removing any obstacles from going home, and in fact, even building a royal highway to get home as quickly and directly as possible. In my own story that I was sharing earlier, as I emerged from the suburbs of Rockford and finally discovered the highway, it was like a new beginning! All I had to do was stay on that path to go home. What a relief! For the Israelites, it was much the same feeling – in the middle of their confusion and sorrow, Baruch is telling them that God will rescue them, and ultimately, he does!
Then we fast-forward a little to the Gospel. We hear all these proper names to situate the historical event of Jesus’ life in time. Guys like Tiberius Caesar, the most powerful man in the world, and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of the area. Herod, Philip, and Lysanias were tetrarchs of the region, but they were just client kings to do what the other Roman guys wanted. Annas and Caiaphas were Jewish high priests, but they were Roman sympathizers as well! Do you see what’s going on here? Even though the Israelite people had returned home, they were in exile again, under the boot of Rome in their own country. But then the Word of the Lord came – not to these important emperors and kings and high priests – but to a strange prophet in the desert named John. His message is the same as Baruch’s – prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight his paths, because he’s coming to bring you home!
Now, like I said at the beginning, exile might be tough to connect to. But in a sense, I think many of us suffer exile every day. We might not feel exiled as such, but that feeling of being lost, of being conquered by something, of feeling unable to return to that place in our hearts where we know we’re called to? Now that is something all of us can connect with. I don’t know what kind of exiles you suffer from. It could be feeling overwhelmed with your situation and how it just doesn’t seem possible to get out of it. It could be struggling with some sin or addiction that just seems to be a constant struggle. It could be feelings of unworthiness for the things you have received. It could be a faith which even though you’ve been sticking with your life in the Church for a while, you just don’t know how much you have left in the spiritual tank. Wherever you find yourself in exile, it seems you have the same two choices that the Israelites did: admit defeat and stay buried in sinfulness or unworthiness or doubt, or continue to hope and have faith. How do we get back? The answer is the same as my trip from Rockford, and it’s the same as the Israelite’s return from Babylon. Pay attention – be attentive to God’s presence and what he’s asking of you. Pray – maintain that connection with God, even when it doesn’t feel like you’re getting anything out of it. And allow yourself to be led home – through acts of humility, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I know it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge our faults, but it’s a time to let go and allow ourselves to be healed of our sins, to be led home from exile.
Brothers and sisters, fellow exiles, we’re journeying through this Advent season, seeking to continue to prepare ourselves to be led home by the coming of Christ. Today, let us pray for the gift of hope, and the humility to follow the Lord when he leads us home.