“It was of him 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.”
I have visited a prayer and fasting retreat center in Colorado a number of times. At 9,000 feet, it is 110 acres of mostly mountain fields, rock formations, aspen and pine stands, and amazing blue skies. It is beautiful, and I have had some of my most profound experiences of God there. On my last visit several years ago, I noticed, significantly, that a neighboring property had essentially turned into a junk yard. Old machinery, supplies, materials and trash were piled up around the property, easily visible from the retreat center. I think I made the observation in small talk to the woman who ran the retreat center that it would be nice if the neighbor would clean up his property. Her reply surprised me, “In Colorado, we have strong property owner rights, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” There is a tension, sometimes, between individual rights and the common good, or put a different way, between the personal and the communal.
Every generation has the same experience: times are changing. While there are some exceptions, our society has generally been swinging toward the importance of the individual over the group. As a teenager, I can remember having a debate among my friends about whether or not athletes should have their names on their jerseys or just the name of their school, not to mention (because it didn’t exist) a twitter account or social media following. Pretty much every social organization, from the country club to the moose lodge, is in decline. Many cultural experiences of the practice of the faith have followed suit. It wasn’t long ago that, as a group, Catholics didn’t eat meat on Fridays, gathered at Churchill Downs each year for a huge Eucharistic procession, and packed the pews on Sunday. Even many summer social calendars in Louisville revolved around parish picnics. Times are changing.
As you read this, there are about 17 days until Christmas. This is now synonymous to the shopping days until Christmas, but wasn’t always so. The first law on record restricting activity on Sunday is under Emperor Constantine in Rome dating to 321 AD and blue laws in the United States limited activities on Sundays, especially many retail sales. Stores would put in the window the actual number of days they would be open before Christmas. In some places, people even didn’t do yard work, let children go to a friend’s house to play, or hang clothes out to dry on Sundays out of consideration for their neighbors. There were legal or cultural norms that established boundaries around personal behavior for the, at least perceived, common good. The good of the group was emphasized over the individual. Few of us would argue for shutting down Amazon.com on Sundays and much has been gained, but some things have been lost. Times are changing.
The external, cultural, or legal supports for being Christian or Catholic have diminished, if not disappeared. This is not all bad. Most of us can no longer coast along at being Catholic for purely cultural reasons. That’s not what Jesus ever wanted, anyway. John the Baptist came to prepare the way, but it wasn’t a sociocultural endeavor. He baptized with water because of changed hearts and lives. The one who came after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire for the same. The Church has always been both personal and communal, not in opposition, but together. In Advent, we are journeying together to prepare each of our hearts, to make straight the paths, for the Lord’s coming: to personally and communally encounter God with us, Jesus in our midst. We can’t coast into it. We are invited and called to respond. Times are changing. The question now is, are you?