We live in an age of instant communication. Because of satellites orbiting the earth, we can place a phone call to someone on the other side of the world in a matter of seconds; also, our smartphones allow us to speak to someone, text, or pass along articles or images from the internet with the touch of a button, and on TV we can watch live events happening right now in far-distant countries. We tend to take such communication for granted, but all this is a very recent development in the story of humanity. It wasn’t just in the ancient world that messages took a long time to be delivered; the same thing was true for much of American history. For instance, Benjamin Franklin sponsored the creation of an official postal service in the thirteen colonies, but it could easily take a week or more for a letter to be sent from one state to another. When the California Gold Rush began in 1848, it took several months for a message from the East Coast to arrive out West. This delay in communications was considered much too long, however, so the famous pony express was created to deliver mail between Missouri and California, with 400 stations established every fifteen miles or so. Each rider would come in, get a fresh horse, and set off again in under two minutes. Under this system, it still took from eight to ten days to deliver the mail from one end of the 2000 mile route to the other. What most people don’t know is that the pony express only operated for a year-and-a-half; it was no longer needed once telegraph lines were established, allowing messages to be sent from one coast to the other quite rapidly.
Our experiences of, and assumptions about, communications, messages, and messengers can make it hard for us to understand how God reveals His truth to us. It’s possible we might have a direct revelation from Him in the form of a vision or mystical experience, or hear the Lord actually speak to us in an unmistakable way, but that’s relatively rare. We must instead learn to be silent in God’s presence on a regular basis, read and reflect on His word in Sacred Scripture, and carefully listen to the messengers He sends us. Slow and indirect communication of this sort might make us impatient, but God can afford to take His time—for He is speaking to us not primarily about today or tomorrow, but about eternity. The world is always shouting at us with a false sense of urgency, but Advent is meant to be a time of patient listening. As long as our hearts are truly open to God, He promises He will tell us what we need to hear when we need to hear it, giving us the truth necessary to find peace in this world and eternal happiness in the next.
The Jews had been waiting many generations for a Messiah, or Savior—and at the proper time appointed by God, John the Baptist appeared as His forerunner or messenger, preparing the way for the Lord’s coming. He announced the good news foretold in the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (40:1-5, 9-11), a message that the people’s hopes would finally be fulfilled, with the Lord appearing in power and tenderly caring for the sheep of His flock. However, this message of good news would require a response: namely, repentance from sin and humble openness to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This sort of receptive attitude, John proclaimed, would be necessary to receive the salvation Jesus was bringing in His first coming; St. Peter (2 Peter 3:8-14) tells us it’s also required if we are to be ready for the Lord’s second coming. God’s saving truth is always available to us—but only if we are willing to listen to and receive it.
According to a leading efficiency expert, 60% of all management problems in the workplace are the result of faulty communications. A prominent marriage counselor claims that at least half of all divorces result from poor communication between the spouses, and experts in criminology assert that over 90% of all criminals have trouble communicating effectively with others (James Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited, p. 106). I think it’s also safe to say that most spiritual problems in life—including a sense of religious doubt, lack of purpose or direction, or even despair—exist because of a failure to listen to God and respond to Him in an authentic way. Our age of instant communication tends to promote shallow interactions, while working against careful listening and thoughtful reflection. All this makes it harder than ever to hear and respond to the Lord’s call—and so the Church, echoing St. John the Baptist, offers us these few weeks of Advent as a corrective or remedy.
The Lord has a personal message for each one of us, not involving our material preparations for Christmas, but our spiritual preparations for eternity. This message will be slightly different for each of us, but it will involve some element or degree of repentance, sacrifice, generosity, trust, hope, peace, and joy; depending on our unique circumstances, the Lord will speak to us words of correction, encouragement, challenge, direction, and blessing. What must we do to receive this message? Very simply, we must repent of our sins, go to Confession as often as necessary, worthily receive Our Lord in the Eucharist, make an extra effort to be kind and respectful toward everyone we meet, listen to any unexpected or unlikely messengers He might send to us, read and reflect on Scripture and other spiritual resources available to us, and make some quiet time for God—ideally, each day. He is constantly speaking to us, but out of respect for our human weakness and our free will, the Lord is very gentle and careful not to overwhelm us. Because of the greater than usual noise and busyness of the season, we have to make an extra effort to listen and respond to God’s personal message for us. This is how we will have a holy Advent, a wonderful Christmas, and a joyous eternity.