“It was of [John the Baptist] that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’” (Matthew 3:3)
There are two central figures that the Church offers us as models to guide us during our Advent journey: John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Today we would normally celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception where we honor Mary for being the one chosen by God and prepared by God to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary is the mother of Advent as she shows us how to prepare our hearts, as she did, for the coming of Jesus. We honor Mary because she was chosen by God, conceived without sin, and courageous in her submission to the will of God.
Last night, we celebrated this great feast here in the parish with the traditional Nicaraguan “Gritería” where we literally scream at the top of our lungs the cause of our joy. People prepare altars for the Blessed Mother all adorned differently and with great fanfare. They give out small presents to all who come to pray at their altar as a symbol of God’s generosity towards us and towards Mary. The Almighty has done great things in her and in us, for she is the cause of so much joy.
After celebrating Mass last night, I went out into our parking lot and blessed the 20 altars that had been erected by our faithful. Then I donned a cassock and surplice and a white stole and went out into the streets of Sweetwater to bless the altars of the businesses around us and all the altars that were set up along the four blocks that the city had graciously blocked off for this feast. I walked 8 city blocks and four blocks over from our church and back to greet everyone. There were people everywhere as over 5,000 people gathered according to this morning’s newspaper. Entire shopping centers were filled with people singing Marian hymns. On the streets, people shouted “Long live, Mary!” to one another. When they saw me approaching with a bottle of holy water in hand to bless the altars, they wanted to be blessed too. (Thankfully, my DRE had packed an extra bottle that we just kept filling and blessing.) As I was surrounded by all these people, I was reminded of how Pope Francis has consistently told us over the last 9 months that we as priests must leave our churches and go out into the streets to smell like sheep. Many were there because of tradition, and they don’t usually go to Mass on Sunday, but they are Catholic and that are my sheep. This is why I climbed onto the stage the city had built for the event (I’m not kidding: I invited myself up there and addressed the people without being asked), and reminded the people why they were there, why we love Mary, and that the Church was just down the street ready to welcome them with open arms. I felt like John the Baptist in today’s gospel shouting in the wilderness to return to the Lord and make straight his paths. It wasn’t so much a calling of the people to repent, but a reminder, an invitation, an embrace, even if it was through the simple gesture of sprinkling holy water, that the Church loves them and hasn’t forgotten about them. They love Mary and the Church loves them. From all over, people kept coming up to me to bless their children. After I blessed each little toddler, I would ask if they were baptized. Out of the dozens of little children that I blessed, not one parent told me that their child was baptized. I implored them to come to the Church to baptize their children, and then I quipped to my DRE that next year I was going to bring a big bowl filled with water and just start baptizing kids in the street like the old missionaries used to do (you think I’m kidding?).
What last night taught me, or reminded me I should say, is that the people of God are thirsty. We as a Church have to do a better job of satisfying that thirst and indeed going out to where they are. Those who are lost in the wilderness need to hear our voices and need to hear the cause of our joy. There are so many people who can come back home to the Church this Christmas if you invite them, if you offer a kind word, or if you remind them of how much God and the Blessed Mother love them. We are all called to be a John the Baptist and shout in whatever desert we may find ourselves in. Look to Mary to prepare your hearts for Jesus this Advent season, and look to John the Baptist to help you prepare others to return home to Holy Mother Church this Christmas.