A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert.’
In my imagination I picture the energy and hard work that is needed in preparing the route for a new motorway. Massive earth removers gauging out rock and soil to be carted away to landfill or for some other specific purpose: Civil Engineers ensuring that the infrastructure is according to plan and design: cuttings, banking, bridges, viaducts, drainage, electric cables for lighting and motorway signs: ensuring that the project is on schedule, and perhaps highest on the list of priorities, the personal safety of all those working on site.
The detailed preparation that is essential for the success of such a complicated and vast engineering project requires scores of personnel with different skills all working to achieve the same goal. The contract may take years, and during the months and months of construction, there will be crises to overcome, the inevitable rising costs of construction, keeping the project on schedule, and other problems which cause sleepless nights for the management team. Once the project is completed, there will be an ‘opening’ ceremony, and well-deserved congratulations will be shared by all those who had a hand in the project accompanied by a celebratory toast.
However, Isaiah wasn’t talking about motorway construction, he was talking about a safe, unhindered and snag-free spiritual pathway between us and God, and God and us so that we may meet each other with ease and without distress. The only obstacles on the path between God and us will be those we have put there ourselves, namely our sins. The question is, how do we remove them? The answer is in scripture. The first quote comes from the wisdom of St John Chrysostom, and this is his wise advice. ‘Here are  five high-roads to repentance of our sins, first – acknowledging one’s [own] sins, second - forgiving the sins of others, third – prayer, fourth - almsgiving, fifth -humility.’ [From the homilies of St John Chrysostom ‘On the devil’]
The second quote comes from a homily of a second century author. (Ch 15:1-17,2 from the Divine Office)
‘Almsgiving is one form of repentance and a good one too; fasting is better than prayer; but almsgiving is better than both, because charity covers a multitude of sins. Prayer is a sure shield against death, and blessed is that man/woman found perfect in these three ways. One last word, almsgiving lightens the load of sin.’
It is important to bear in mind that the advice from these two spiritual writers was given well before the Sacrament of Reconciliation as we understand it was established. ‘Confession’ or Reconciliation, as it has been renamed since Vatican II, developed from the sixth century, so it is right to ask, where did its origins come from? Baptism is referred to in the Book of Leviticus where the priests were encouraged to ‘wash themselves clean before carrying out their priestly duties’, and by the time of Jesus the concept of people ‘being cleansed of their sins by a ritual washing became fairly common. We read at the beginning of Marks gospel that John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
The name Jesus is a translation for the word ‘Saviour’, for, as the angel told Joseph, “he shall save his people from their sins”(Mt 1:21). Jesus himself described his mission not as calling the just, but sinners. His first words were, “repent and believe in the Good News” (Mk 1:15). On Pentecost day when the people asked Peter what they should do he naturally replied that they ‘should be baptised for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). Baptism forgives sins, and when the apostles preached forgiveness they meant Baptism. The apostles weren’t thinking of a repeated confession of sins, but rather of a one-time, lasting baptism conversion forever to God. Once baptism had been received, future sin was not even considered as a possibility. ..... Oh dear!! How could such a problem be resolved!
‘Jesus gave his apostles and their successors power to forgive sins, and that was when the sacrament of penance was instituted. We know from scripture there are numerous ways for our sins to be forgiven, but the premier sacrament of forgiveness was and is the eucharist, and the third century theologian Origen stressed the importance of the eucharist as the place for the forgiveness of sins, even mortal sins. There is an exceedingly long and ancient tradition, quite unbroken, behind Origen’s statement. It could be rightly said that the eucharist is the traditional sacrament of forgiveness of post-baptismal sins. And this is as it should be.’ (Bausch, A New Look at the Sacraments. Reconciliation). Grave sin does not exclude us from the eucharist. The indications from the early centuries of the church are that ‘those in what we call mortal sin approached the eucharist for forgiveness’. (Bausch) (p.155) This conviction was so strong, that it wasn’t until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, that confession of ‘mortal sins’ was prescribed before receiving communion.
As we enter into the 2nd. week of Advent, this special time waiting for the coming of our Saviour, the choices available for us to be spiritually prepared are there for us to choose, but top of the list is Mass, which is all about reconciliation, and the reception of the Eucharist, which cleanses our souls from sin.