Readings: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 84; Luke 5:17-26
From time to time during Advent we hear about the great highway which will be constructed to facilitate the return of the people to Jerusalem from their exile in Babylon. Restored to their own land they will once again rejoice in the presence of God with them. The valleys will be filled in and the mountains brought low, the way will be wide and direct, facilitating their return, and making their journey easy. The blind will see and the lame will walk.
In today's first reading this highway is referred to as the 'Sacred Way'. Other ancient cultures had Sacred Ways. There is one in China, for example, connected with the journey of the Emperors to heaven. There is one in Greece, from Athens to Eleusis, the way to the joyful celebration of religious mysteries. And there is one just ten minutes from where I live, the Via Sacra that runs through the Roman Forum, from the Colosseum to the Capitol.
There is a striking contrast between the Roman Sacred Way and the one spoken about in the reading from Isaiah. The Via Sacra was the final stage of the triumphant journey made by victorious Roman generals as they returned with their booty, their captured kings, their enemies enslaved. The rejoicing along that road was at the humiliation and weakness of others. The triumph celebrated the power and glory of Roman military might, culminating in the execution of many of the captives, thrown to their deaths from the Capitol.
Isaiah's Sacred Way is also about triumph and rejoicing but not at all 'alla Romana'. Here no enemy is needed to support the rejoicing. If anybody has been defeated it is the people themselves in their sinfulness and forgetfulness of God. The road is open to everyone and is not about humiliation and the despising of weakness. On the contrary it is about life and new strength and a welcome not just for God's chosen people but for all the peoples of the earth who will come from east and west, from north and south, to take their places on Mount Zion.
Today's gospel reading can be brought in also. There are obstacles for people getting to Jesus. How are they to find the way to the Way? A crowd of people prevents the paralysed man getting to Him. In fact the paralysed man needs the help of others if he is to have any hope of getting to him. And his friends engage in a piece of pastoral creativity, opening the roof and letting him down directly into the presence of Jesus.
A few thoughts here. Will we have the humility to allow ourselves to be helped along the way? Of course we want to walk on our own two feet, to find our way to God by ourselves. But inevitably we need the help of others and will we be ready to accept it? We need the help of the Church, the community of those who believe in Jesus. (It could be that the friends who bring the man to Jesus are the first apostles, recently called, and getting down to their task. It could be also that the crowd preventing access to Jesus can also be understood as the Church: the scandalous lives of believers are a major stumbling block for people.)
Another thought: where is the place, in ourselves, that will be ready to open so that we can be in the presence of Jesus? The most difficult of the deadly sins are the ones that close us down and cut us off, imprisoning us within ourselves: pride, anger, and envy. What is needed if we are to open up? What is needed if we are not to despise weakness in ourselves but are to be gracious and humble in accepting how God works for us through others?
In John's gospel Jesus describes himself as 'the Way' and it is one of the names used for the primitive Christian movement in the Acts of the Apostles. Advent invites us to search again for the way, to return to the Lord, to reflect on the things that prevent this return, the things that paralyse us and block our access to Jesus. Advent reminds us also that there are people who can give us directions, who are travelling the way before us and with us.