Let’s remember four words throughout Advent: travel, trees, fire, and fan.
Travel—from the prophet Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” In the Middle East in ancient times, roads were few and hazardous. A local proverb from that time: “There are three states of misery—sickness, fasting, and travel.” To leave your town or village to go out to the Jordan was not a mere stroll—it was a hardship. The merely curious would not undertake such a perilous trip. Going out to the Jordan River for John’s baptism indicated a readiness to begin the difficult process of leaving your sins behind.
But as we reflect on travel as an Advent theme, we must remember that we live on a two-way street. We have a journey to make, but so does the Lord. Jesus, Who is Son of God and Son of Mary, He Who is the Word made Flesh, became man and entered our world so that He could enter our souls, and reclaim His rightful place upon the throne of our hearts. If we wish to “prepare the way of the Lord” and “make straight his paths,” then we have to remove any obstacles that keep our hearts from Him. We must clear our lives of the people, places, and things that are near occasions of sin for us. And we must throw down the idols that now sit on the throne of our crooked hearts.
The second word we need to remember during Advent is “trees.” The Baptist said: “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” A medieval abbot named Rabanus wrote: “There are four sorts of trees: the first totally withered, to which the Pagans may be likened; the second, green but unfruitful, as the hypocrites; the third, green and fruitful, but poisonous, such are heretics; the fourth, green and bringing forth good fruit, to which are like the good Catholics.” Are we fruitful trees in the Lord’s vineyard? God is patient, but John the Baptist makes clear that time is running out for all of us. The Season of Advent is given to us as a reminder to get busy.
Travel and trees. The third word we need to remember for Advent is “fire.” John the Bapist said of the coming Messiah, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Fire brings light. Jesus is the beacon of light to guide us home to our Heavenly Father. Fire brings warmth. Jesus sparks in us the warmth of love of God and neighbor. The biblical scholar William Barclay wrote that, “Christianity is always the religion of the kindled heart.” And fire brings purification. Fire burns away dross; it strengthens and tempers metal. The fire of Jesus will burn away the dross of evil from us, and leave us with a heart that may become a strong instrument in His hands.
Travel, trees, fire. Finally, we must talk about the word “fan.” The Baptist said of the coming Messiah, “His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” The good grain was brought into the barn, and the leftover chaff was used as fuel for the fire.
What John is pointing to is an unavoidable sifting of all humanity. Those heavy with fruitfulness for Christ will be gathered into the Kingdom, and it will not end well for the rest. One medieval commentator said that the Church will be subject to four winnowings, that is, four times of persecution and sifting. We can extrapolate that the Church is persecuted in every age.
Travel, trees, fire, and fan. These are the words that I said we ought to remember during Advent. What shall we do with them?
2 Practical steps
Let’s be practical, and let’s be simple. First, I ask you today to take time in prayer, and ask God to reveal to you one obstacle, that is, one habit of sin that keeps you from Christ. Then resolve today that, with God’s grace, that obstacle will be removed by Midnight Mass on this Christmas Eve.
Second, take time in prayer today, and ask God to reveal to you one fruitfulness, that is, one habit of charity, that He would like to see take root in your heart. Then resolve today that, with God’s grace, that good seed will be well planted by Midnight Mass on this Christmas Eve.
When I write next, I will offer another Advent reflection. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Bishop Barron: Doing some real Advent spiritual work