Make Straight the Highway

This week's reflection is written by
Mr. Joseph McDaniel, OSFS.

This weekend, as we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the option is given of a well-known reading from the prophet Isaiah, which the Gospel writers would see as pointing to John the Baptist:

A voice cries out:
In the desert prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!
Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low
(Isaiah 40:3-4)

I find this reading to be quite apropos during our North American winters, in which our highways get continuously pummeled by the elements. Bumps and crevasses form where there had been flat pavement; long, zig-zagging cracks emerge where there had been straight road. It is almost as if the opposite of Isaiah’s prophecy occurs!

To remedy their annual weathering at the hands of ice, snowstorms, salt and tire chains, many of our thoroughfares seem to be in a perpetual state of construction. Just as paving on one side of the highway is completed, it just as soon begins on another; once patching is complete on one mile, another mile of potholes awaits.

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While the seemingly endless parade of detour signs, construction cones and reduced speed zones can often try the patience of even the most composed motorists, I can only imagine the patience and perseverance required on the part of the crews who maintain these roadways, working long hours in suboptimal conditions, allowing the rest of us to go to our jobs, visit friends and loved ones, and take vacation. It must often be a test of interior detachment to have to return to the same stretches of road find that last year’s work, often so painstakingly undertaken, has been undone by mother nature and must be taken up anew.

Although he never worked on an interstate, John the Baptist was revered by Francis de Sales for such a sense of detachment. Writing to Jane de Chantal, Francis declared,

“I’ve often wondered who was the most mortified of all the saints I know, and after much reflection, I decided it was Saint John the Baptist...he spent twenty-five years in the desert…then leaving the desert, he went about catechizing without going to visit the Lord, but waited for the Lord to come to him. Afterward, having baptized Him, he didn’t follow Him but stayed behind to do his appointed work.”
(Letter to Jane de Chantal, 14 October 1604)1

As God’s premier roadbuilder preparing the way for Jesus, John did not get to travel with Jesus the same way that the other disciples did, but instead met Jesus at a pivotal point along that way, which turned out to be the first moment during Jesus’ adult life that his identity as Son of God was revealed. In being present at the moment of revelation of Jesus’ mission, the nature of John’s own mission was put in its full perspective.

Like the crews who maintain today’s highways and like John, God’s roadbuilder, we may not get to travel along the roads that we build to exactly the same destinations as others. We may be assigned to work on the same patch of road and repair it year and year out, maybe for 25 years. Yet it is on that patch of road where we get to encounter Jesus, who may appear in the form of one of many travelers and pilgrims, just as Jesus was one of many who sought the baptism of John. What may appear to be just another passing meeting may be a privileged moment of encounter where Jesus’ saving mission is revealed, and we learn something about our own mission as preparers of his way.