John the Baptist is an important prophetic figure of the Season of Advent, helping us to prepare the way of the Lord through his preaching of repentance. He is the voice crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
In both the First Reading from Isaiah and Mark’s Gospel, we are presented with an important image: the desert. It is a wild and challenging place that demands our attention. In John’s time, people would go out into the desert in hopes that they would be unburdened. Instead, they encountered John’s message that called them to search their hearts.
We are also presented with the image of paths being made level, easing our travel so that we can focus on the journey. However, John’s words suggest that opening a road for the coming of the Lord was and remains a problem, unless we are willing to go out to the desert and acknowledge our shortcomings. Sometimes we are lost, and often there are obstacles standing in our way. We even veer off the road seeking easier paths that ultimately lead us through peaks and valleys, rather than to level roads where we can focus on our journey home to the Lord. But we can always find our way back.
While considering straight and level paths, the image that stuck with me was from my favorite Christmas book and tv show when I was a child: How the Grinch Stole Christmas, written by the famous Dartmouth College graduate we all know as Dr. Seuss! Consider how that story begins: the Grinch is isolated, angry, selfish, and alone. He has a cute loyal little dog who is terrified of him because the Grinch is a bully! The lyrics of the song describe him to a ‘T’:
You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch. You really are a heel. You’re as cuddly as a cactus, you’re as charming as an eel, Mr. Grinch. You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel!
The Grinch is as proud as he is mean, because he’s convinced that he is superior to and smarter than the Whos in Whoville. His pride and arrogance prevent him from seeing the joy of the people he despises. He is ignorant to the fact that they’re waiting for something much greater than what’s under the tree or on the dinner table. He then proceeds to steal the gifts, food, and decorations of the Whos, convinced that there won’t be a Christmas if he succeeds. He truly believes that he can control whether or not Christmas will be celebrated.
This path to Whoville of his, plundering the homes of those who live there, was not level or smooth. Even worse was the Grinch’s treacherous path home to his old and lonely way of life – burdened under the weight of anger, pride, profound loneliness, and all those things that did not belong to him. But then, something miraculous begins to happen. The Grinch sees and hears the townspeople rejoicing despite the absence of their belongings. He begins to realize that there’s something much greater happening in Whoville than he’d imagined, something that can’t be taken away from those who have faith, hope and love. For the Grinch, the lowly and simple Whos become like the voice crying out in the wilderness, calling him to turn from his wicked ways and make his ways level – to become part of their community!
This cute children’s story is really about conversion of the heart. And what happens to the Grinch’s? His heart triples in size! He acts with generosity and openness, and he enjoys a confident return to Whoville because he is also moving towards true love, joy, and gratitude. This is the same path we follow as we get closer to Christmas. When the Grinch returns and hands over what he stole, he receives a gift beyond his wildest dreams – loving acceptance into a joyful community of believers where he is seated at the head of the table. This image reminds each of us that the last shall be first and the first shall be last!
I have always loved the look of joy and contentment on the Grinch’s face when he’s seated at the head of the table. It’s not because of the pudding or roast beast, but because he realizes he is lovable, forgiven and has finally found acceptance. This is the same invitation our Lord and our Aquinas House community offer to us. For this welcome, we must be willing to take the motto of Dartmouth College to heart and go out to the desert to prepare the way of the Lord – to make our paths level – so that, as we heard in the Second Letter of Peter: We might be eager to be found without spot or blemish before Him and at peace before our Lord who loves us.
May God continue to Bless you, your families, friends and our Aquinas House Community. Take good care and God Bless.
fr. Brendan Murphy, O.P.