Homily given by Cardinal Vincent Nichols at Westminster Cathedral on the Second Sunday of Advent, 6th December 2020.
Today we hear a voice that cries: 'Prepare a way for the Lord'. It echoes down through the ages. It is the voice of the prophet Isaiah, the voice of John the Baptist. It reaches us today: Prepare a way for the Lord.
Indeed, these are days of preparation. So many adverts, to be seen and heard everywhere, remind us that we should be preparing for Christmas. That commercial voice may have forgotten its true roots but it comes across to us loud and clear.
Can we combine John the Baptist and Christmas commerce? Surely. We can make every step of our preparations for Christmas into a moment of anticipation of its true meaning. Sending cards, finding presents, thinking about the decorations, planning the food to be provided: each of these we can fill with a fresh appreciation that at the heart of it all is the coming of God into our flesh. We are celebrating the birth of Jesus.
For this reason, I invite you to celebrate this true meaning of Christmas in your homes. Please ensure that you have a crib in a prominent place in your home. Gather round it as we approach this great Feast and say some prayers with your family and in your 'bubbles'. Give your decorations a touch of the Christmas story: some joyful angels, a prominent star, gift parcels from the wise men. Try to make this Advent and Christmas a family festival of the birth of Jesus, a time when faith finds a fresh expression in your homes. To do so will brings rich rewards.
Keep in touch with your parish, too, so that you know about the arrangements for Christmas Mass, remembering that the Feast of Christmas lasts for eight days - the Octave of Christmas - and Mass on each of those days is indeed a Christmas Mass.
But back to John the Baptist, or rather to Isaiah:
His words were: 'Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God.'
To feel the impact of this command we have to sense that there is something of the wilderness about our lives. No one who is content with how things are can truly understand the coming of our God or welcome him wholeheartedly. There has to be a touch of repentance in our hearts if we are to enter fully Advent and Christmas. We have to know our need of the Saviour.
In Bethlehem, the door into the Church of the Nativity is remarkably small and low. Tall people have to stoop to enter. I heard once that it was built like that to stop anyone entering the Church riding a horse. We have to get down from the high seats of our pride in order to meet the infant king. Only the humble of heart are ready to greet him.
Isaiah cried out: 'Let every mountain and hill be laid low!' To truly prepare a way for the Lord into our souls we have to come down from the high peaks of our opinions, from the hills of our certainties, and know that without his presence in our lives we can be rather noisy and shallow. In his coming he teaches us reverence for others, a sense of our need for each other. In the words of Pope Francis, he shows us our 'fraternity', that we are all sisters and brothers.
Isaiah also said: 'Let every valley be filled in.' Perhaps we can read this as referring to those times and places of our hearts when we feel utterly worthless, when we know we have made a mess of things. These times come to us all. We sink into a deep trough of despondency, a valley of darkness.
In our preparation for his coming, we invite the Lord to these places, so that his gracious presence may pick us up again and renew us in his service. He alone is the one who can lift us up and put us back onto our feet. So, in humility of heart, we reach out for his coming.
Isaiah again: 'Go up on a high mountain...shout with a loud voice...shout without fear...Here is your God!' Yes, he is coming.
Advent has three meanings: the coming of Christ is the flesh, in Jesus; the coming of Christ at the end of time to bring all things, all creation, into its fullness in God; and, in between these two comings, the third: the coming of Christ quietly into our hearts, day by day.
In preparing to celebrate the Feast of that first coming of the Word of God, we are also preparing for his coming into our lives, our hearts, our feelings, our souls, today and every day. So let this day be a day of welcoming Jesus, asking him to fill with his goodness the empty places of our hearts, to help us down from our high-horses, and to give us a voice to speak of his coming and of the joy and consolation of his presence, to those we know and with whom we share our lives. Then will these days of Advent reveal their true meaning. Then will our preparations for the Christmas Feast fill our hearts not with anxiety but with a fresh joy in the Lord.
In the words of Isaiah again: 'He is like a shepherd, feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading them to their rest.'
Come Lord Jesus, come.