It is not unusual for parallels to be drawn between the season of Advent and that of Lent. Both are times in the Church’s liturgical year characterized by a certain restraint: the Gloria in excelsis is not sung on Sundays; fasting and penance are increased as we prepare for the coming feast; the texts at Mass draw heavily on the prophets to emphasize in image and shadow what will only be fully revealed in the light of Christ—be it the new day of his nativity, or the ‘morning star that never sets’ of his paschal triumph. Advent, we might say, represents the Church breathing in before she bursts into the song of exultation at the coming of her Lord; or of the tide drawing back, leaving the sand bare and stark before covering it once more with water; the water of regeneration and of life which is the mark of Christ among us.
The reading from the prophecy of Isaiah today emphasizes this when we are told a voice will cry out, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’. And in our passage from the gospel according to Saint Matthew that prophecy is explicitly fulfilled in the person of Saint John the Baptist. Writing in the fourth century Saint Gregory Nazianzen describes Saint John the Baptist as ‘the lamp that goes before [Christ]’; he is the one who lights the way for the coming of Christ and points us toward the one who has come to save his people from their sins. He does this by the fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah, but also through his own words; words we hear every time we come to the Mass: Ecce Agnus Dei. Saint Gregory goes on, ‘The Word of God follows the voice in the wilderness; the bridegroom follows the bridegroom’s friend, who prepares a worthy people for the Lord by cleansing them by water in preparation for the Spirit’.
Saint John the Baptist, then, is an important protagonist in our pilgrimage through this holy season. He points us beyond the types and shadows of the old testament prophecies and promises, and to the reality of their fulfilment in the Messiah who comes to save us; in Christ. And by going ahead of Christ as that ‘lamp’ who prepares the way, he shows us how we too can prepare to receive the Lord into our own lives: in his coming at his nativity, in his coming at the end of time, and in his coming here and now when at the altar as we receive his very Body and Blood.
In both the reading from Isaiah and the gospel today, the notion of the desert is important. As we have already said, the season of Advent is one marked by a certain sparsity and restraint; it is a time for us to prepare for the coming of the Lord by removing ourselves from the distractions of the world, living for a short time without the usual comforts of our liturgical, spiritual, and actual diet, in order that we might better celebrate the joy and festivity of the coming feast. It is to this desert, then, that Saint John the Baptist leads us. He leads us into the wilderness of this Advent season so that we can more fully recognize our need for God and his grace, and so desire God more and more. We will recall that it was through the desert that God led the people of Israel to the safety of the Promised Land, by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire. So now Almighty God leads us to the promised land of our eternal rest in the kingdom of heaven by giving us first Saint John the Baptist as our beacon, as that ‘lamp that goes before Christ’, and ultimately his own beloved Son, who is the lumen ad revelationem gentium, to lead us through the trials and temptations of this arid place, this valley of tears; not just our Advent season, but our entire earthly life. Eusebius of Caesarea summarizes this beautifully in the Office of Readings for today: ‘It was in the wilderness that God’s saving presence was proclaimed by John the Baptist, and there that God’s salvation was seen’ (Off. Lect., Dom. Advent. II).
As we continue through this wilderness toward the joy of Christ’s coming, our hearts should thus be filled not with despair but with hope. By faithfully following the example of Saint John the Baptist in this life, and following the path lighted for us by his example, we know that this desert is not where we will remain for much very longer. As Advent turns into the splendour of Christmas, so our mortal lives will, if we continue toward Christ, turn into the eternal life offered to us in the presence of Christ and his saints. Let us be resolved in this Advent season, then, to seek with courage the grace that will bring us to this place of rest, so that we too may leave the desert behind and come to the promised land of our inheritance, the kingdom of God and our rightful home; a place of refreshment, of light, and of peace.