What does it mean «to prepare»?

“Prepare!” When you think about Advent, prepare is certainly one of the words at the top of the list to describe this Season as a way of living. Together with the command and action “make straight,” the command “prepare” stand at the forefront of the wildly hope-filled Isaian text declaring (not simply wishing) that God is up to a mighty work, some might even say a ‘re-creation,’ that will transform captivity into freedom. Hymns, oratorios, Broadway plays and even a flash mob have enshrined this powerful prophetic text that all Evangelists use (the Evangelist John begins the Isaian citation with the command “make straight” omitting “prepare the way of the Lord”) at some point early in each Gospel to describe the person, John the Baptist, as well as his work ‘to prepare the way’ for his kinsman and Savior, Jesus.

Initially, the word prepare is usually associated with actions that will “make ready.” A particular event or celebration, to name only two, require specific tasks be accomplished in order for the future event to happen with a reasonable expectation of success. For the super-organized among us, one might even have an app that will meticulously track and document everything on the “to-do” or “honey-do” list as well as generate progress reports to keep everyone on track. This sense of ‘making ready’ by completing necessary steps or task does convey the meaning of the Greek verb ἑτοιμάζω (etoimazo) as used by the Evangelist, Saint Luke. With Advent’s two-fold meaning of preparing for Jesus’ Second Coming as well as for the commemoration of His first coming to us in Bethlehem, there are certainly legitimate ‘tasks’ to accomplish as a response to initiative of Grace this Advent. Time spent pondering the Word of God, silent prayer, the Sacrament of Penance, deepening awareness and reverence for Our Lord’s Real Presence in the Most Blessed Sacrament as well as the spiritual and corporal works of mercy (especially with the start of the Jubilee Year of Mercy beginning this Tuesday) are noble tasks accomplished by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit given to each of us as Gift. All of these ready each of us for Jesus’ presence and action in the world and in our lives. But there is more, as the Word of God is always abundantly rich in its life-giving message of Salvation.

ἑτοιμάζω (etoimazo), the Greek verb “to prepare,” is itself a translation of a Hebrew verb that appears in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that dates to the time of Alexander the Great). ἑτοιμάζω (etoimazo) translates the Hebrew verb פָּנָה (panah) and in terms of its usage this Sunday, appears in Isaiah 40:3, which is part of ‘the prologue of hope’ delivered to the Israelites while captive in Babylon. During their captivity, the Israelites became painfully aware that their present plight as captives, not to mention a destroyed city and Temple, were the result of their own selfishness. Despite the repeated pleas of prophets, many in Israel choose to gaze only upon that which satisfied self in the present moment. Whether it was sins of anger, envy , gluttony, greed, lust, pride or sloth, Israel knew she turned her gaze from the Lord Who is One to elements of creation in a failed attempt for some delight or satisfaction. Isaiah’s command to this captive and now deeply depressed people was “Prepare [פָּנָה (panah)]!” While not excluding specific actions that must be accomplished, פָּנָה (panah) concretely describes the action of “turning to face the other” to establish a connection with that person or persons. In other words, the Isaian command פָּנָה (panah) is essentially relational as the Ancient Near Eastern cultures ‘viewed’ the “face” and the sum-total of a person. While the Covenant imperative to avoid sinful anger, envy , gluttony, greed, lust, pride or sloth is necessary and valid, these are but the summation of what must be avoided in order to live in proper relationship with God, others, the true self and all creation — what the Old Testament enshrines as sadiq (often translated in the New Testament as “just” or “righteous” and applied to a select few such as Saint Joseph [Matthew 1:19.]). For Isaiah, the path home (preparing) rested in ‘turning to face the Lord.’ Specific and necessary tasks flowed first and foremost from gazing upon the Face of the Lord.

The implication of the iconic Isaian Text for Christians is not only obvious but urgently imperative. The ‘holy work’ of Advent is not the completion of self-generated tasks, as noble and as good as they may seem to each of us. As the Sacred Tradition knows quite well, our ‘good intentions’ or ‘good works’ can stymie the work of the Holy Spirit; simply consult Saint Augustine as he responded to the ‘good intentions’ and ‘good works’ of Pelagius. All that we are and all that we do MUST be the fruit (product) of heeding the movement of the Holy Spirit to ‘turn our faces to Jesus.’ Being turned to gaze on the Face of Jesus Christ and to permit ‘connecting with Him’ is precisely what that Wildman of the Jordan – John the Baptist — was doing. As people were intrigued by the prophetic word he spoke, he made sure that eventually people – including himself – were connected to Jesus. Beholding the Face of Jesus, gazing into His eyes – being captivated and held by Him is the deeply preparatory work of Advent and indeed how we are to live. When the posture of our lives faces Him, He writes the ‘to-do list’ for life. ‘Be prepared,’ ‘be ready’ for a surprise as to what He writes on the list!