"The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth" (Psalm 144:18).
These words from the Gradual of the Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Advent tell us that there is a way of calling upon God - we must call upon Him "in truth." God sees all. There is no use trying to hide our sins from Him, like Adam and Eve in the garden trying to hide the guilt of their disobedience. The truth is that we are sinners. We must come before God with repentant hearts.
"Make ready the way of the Lord!" says St. John the Baptist. "Every valley shall be filled in," he says, "and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked ways shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth; and all mankind shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:4-6). Why was it so urgent? "For even now," he said, "the axe is laid at the root of the trees; every tree, therefore, that is not bringing forth fruit is to be cut down and thrown into the fire" (Luke 3:9).
In St. Mark's Gospel we read that all Judea and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem went out to hear the Baptist, and to be baptized, repenting of their sins. Unfortunately, for most of them, their conversion was brief, because they refused to recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah, and within a generation hundreds of thousands of them perished at the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 A.D.
Repentance wasn't just for the Jews of John the Baptist's time. Considering the spiritual condition of the human race and the sorry state of the Church, "the axe is already laid to the root of the trees." We must know that without repentance and true conversion our days are numbered. The mountains of our pride must be leveled, the valleys of our sensuality must be filled in, the boulders of our greed and avarice crushed, and the crooked ways of our dishonesty and lies made straight.
But the Baptist's admonition, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord!" was not the whole message. Even more important were his words: "Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him Who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). John had brought many to repentance. Without something more, their conversion would eventually fail for lack of direction, because they failed to have faith in Jesus Christ, for Whom John the Baptist was only the Precursor, the Herald. John's Mission ended with the Baptism of Jesus Christ, the true Lamb of God. John's disciples - Simon, Andrew, James and John - found purpose and fulfillment in being disciples of the Lord, thanks to the words of the Precursor. "He must increase, I must decrease," said John (John 3:30).
This should be a revelation to us. Have we tried to repent of our sins, only to slip back into the darkness because there is no focus or direction to our conversion? Perhaps we are like the man of whom Jesus spoke: "But when an unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he roams through dry places in search of rest, and finds none. Then he says, 'I will return to my house which I left'; and when he has come to it, he finds the place unoccupied, swept and decorated. Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more evil then himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse then the first" (Matthew 12:43-45).
God doesn't evict the devils from the house of our souls so that it might remain unoccupied. The evil spirits must give place to another spirit - the Spirit of God, the Holy Ghost, Whose role during the season of Advent - and in our lives - is greatly unappreciated. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to form Jesus Christ in our souls, just as He formed the Christ Child within the body of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and just as he filled St. Elizabeth at Mary's greeting, so that the infant in her womb - John the Baptist - had to leap for joy. When the Holy Spirit is at work within our souls we are also filled with joy, because Jesus Christ is within us, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Give it a try! Do something good for yourself this Christmas! Prepare a place for the Christ Child within your empty house, meaning your soul, by calling upon the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of God, without Whom the soul is a barren and lifeless wasteland. Nothing good ever happens without the Holy Ghost. If we are disciples of Jesus Christ, we must try to be just like Him, for at His Baptism in the Jordan by St. John the Baptist "immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit, as a dove, descending and remaining upon him" (Mark 1:10). The same Holy Spirit must descend and remain upon us also, if John the Baptist words are to be fulfilled: "I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8).
There is little time left, for "the axe is already laid to the root of the tree." Are you living your life as if your house is unoccupied, perhaps carefully swept and clean after a good confession, but an open invitation for the seven horrible devils Jesus talks about in His parable? Then give a hearty welcome to the One you received at Baptism and Confirmation, the Dove, the Advocate, the Consoler, the Holy Spirit of God. There can be no joy at Christmas if He is not at work in our souls, preparing the way for the Divine Child.
St. Paul also prays that the Holy Ghost may be at work bringing Christ into the hearts of his hearers: "For this reason I bend my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from Whom all fatherhood in Heaven and earth receives its name, that He may grant you from His glorious riches to be strengthened with power through His Spirit unto the progress of the inner man; and to have Christ dwelling through faith in your hearts; so that, being rooted and grounded in love, you may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know Christ's love which surpasses knowledge, in order that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:14-19).
Oh, the emptiness of a Christmas without the love of Christ in our hearts! "But," says St. Paul, "as it is written, 'Eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him.' But to us," he says, "God has revealed them through His Spirit" (1Cor.2:9,10).