St. John the Baptist is here sent, in the verse before the text, to prepare the way. Holy Church sends her Baptists and preachers still, four several days together before the time (for so many Advent Sundays or great days of preparation there are in her holy Calendar) to do as much. Conceive me the voice of one of them to-day, of one crying in the wilderness, in a land as wild and barren of good, as any wilderness of water, 'Prepare you the way,' etc.
Indeed he had need of a better voice than mine, that cries it now to any purpose. Need there is of a loud crier indeed, of vox clamantis at the highest, one to cry it aloud, and ring it in men's ears, to get them to it; they have so almost forgotten, many of them, both day and preparation--His day and His way, so many new ones have they of their own.
Nay, and where old day and way are both pretended to be observed, there is too much wilderness and desert; so many wild, irregular, unmortified passions and affections, such dry, barren doings, so much of our own ways, and ends, and interests, even in religious business, the straight way deserted but too much, that we had need of some rough John Baptist to thunder it to awaken us.
Nor will once crying it serve the turn. One single 'Prepare' will do no good. 'Prepare, make straight,' both little [18/19] enough; and three Evangelists to cry it so after the Baptist had done crying; again and again, over and over, scarce sufficient to keep wild passions under, to work us to a sufficient preparation, to make straight paths, or keep them.
S. John, the Gospeller for the day, has only the first part of the text, the other three have both, S. Matt. iii.3, S. Luke iii.4, and S. Mark here in the text. The Prophet Isaiah, whence the words are taken, has so too, with some addition. Were we what S. John would have us, we should need no addition; but being what we are, 'line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little,' are to little for it. It is best to take the fullest, that our preparation may be the fuller; to take it too out of the mouths of two or three witnesses, that so every word may be established in three witnesses, that so every word may be established in our hearts and in our memories: the Lord's way prepared, his paths made straight, the work done against his coming, whensoever, and howsoever, and which way soever he shall vouchsafe, to come unto us.
The words are originally the Prophet's Isaiah's, prophesied by him, but proclaimed by S. John Baptist, Christ's herald to proclaim his coming, and his harbinger to take up his lodging for him in the hearts of the sons of men. And a proclamation they are to all to prepare and to make ready, make all ready to entertain him: anf two points there are of it, two parts of the preparation required in it.
I. To prepare his way.
II. To make straight his paths.
This way of his divides itself, you see, into the great open road, and into narrow paths: and each has its proper way of ordering; 'prepare' to one, and 'make straight' to the other. Prepare his way, make straight his paths.
But to prepare it for the fuller and easier understanding (for I preach to all), I shall do with the text as we do with our rooms and houses, when we prepare and make them ready; in doing that, we turn things upside down, remove them this way and that way, hither and thither, till we find where to place them best. I shall use the words so here; disturb their order, that I may bring all into the better order, and we all make the better preparation, and set all things straight.
[19/20] Be pleased, then, to forgive me the disorder, and consider this 'way' and 'paths;' first, what they are: then, secondly, whose they are: then, thirdly, this preparation, that it must be: what, fourthly, or how, it must be: and fifthly, by whom it must be.
I. What the way that is to be prepared, and what the paths to be made straight, we must understand by the connexion of these words with the former, and by the way S. John went before us.
II. Whose they are, the Domini will tell us, 'the Lord's' they are.
III. That prepared they must be, the mood and tense of the verbs parite and facite, being the imperative command here to do it, will assure us.
IV. How we prepared they must be, the mood and sense of the same words will show us, when we examine what it is ordinarily to prepare and make straight.
V. By whom they must be prepared and straightened, the number of the verb, plural, and indefinite, will satisfy us. We are all to do it.
So, I. what this way is, and what these paths mean; II. Whose they are; III. That prepared they must be; IV. How prepared they should be; and V. by whom prepared they ought to be are the particulars, by which I shall lead you in the way, and in the preparation, prepare you the way to prepare the way of the Lord, and make his paths straight; the only way to have any comfort of his coming. I begin with the 'way.' To show you what it is, that we err not from it.
I. This way, say some, is the soul of man, cor spatiosum, so Origen; and these paths, the powers and operations of it. 'His way is in this sea. and His paths in these deep waters.' Here the wind blows, and the tempest rises, and the waves roar; the unruly passions make a noise and tumult, and so, as the psalm has it, 'His footsteps are not known.' We cannot discern his track of reason of their tumultuous doings. These are they that are to be prepared, and still and quieted; the soul calmed, and laid, and smoothed, that Christ may come into it. But this is the way into which, and not by which, he comes.
[20/21] 1.The way by which He comes, or we meet Him, is first, the way of faith. Faith is the way by which He comes into the souls of men, the way in which St. Paul worshipped the 'God of his fathers,' in and by which we first come unto our Lord, and worhsip Him as did our fathers. Prepare your hearts for it, prepare them for Him, that when He comes He may find faith upon the earth, in this earth of ours, wherever else He miss it. And here, as faith is the way, so the several articles of it may pass for the paths. God grant we keep them right and straight, and ourselves straight to them, in this perverse and crooked generation.
2. The way, secondly, by which we meet Him is the Law; mandata legalia, says another. Not much distant from St. Paul's styling it, schoolmaster to Christ, the way to bring us to Him. The terrors and threatenings of the law, a good way to prepare us for His coming: the types and figures, a good way to lead us to Him, that we may see He is the same who was, and is, and is to come; the Saviour of all who were, and are, and will be saved; the same patriarch promised, the sacrifices prefigured, the prophets prophesied of, the Jews expected, the apostles preached of, the world believed on, and all must be saved by. With such thoughts as these, then, are we to set upon our preparation: 1. To break our high and haughty spirits by the consideration of the terrors of the law, the curses due to them that break it (and, alas! who is its that does not?), so to make way to let him in. Then, 2, by the types and figures, to confirm our faith, and make them so many several paths to trace out His footsteps and know His coming.
3. The third way by which we are prepared, or which we are to prepare for him, is repentance. The very way St. John Baptist came to preach. His 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,' being the same with this, Prepare you the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.' Those words of the prophet the text, and his the comment. No way indeed to Christ but by this way. No way but by repentance to begin it, 'Turn ye, turn ye,' says the prophet; we are all out of the way, God knows, from the beginning. If he will into the way again, into the way of our Lord, turn we must, repent we must of our former ways and doings, get [21/22] us into better ways. And then 'paths' here will be the straight and narrow ways, the rigours and austerities of repentance, the straightening ourselves of all our former liberties and desires; making our paths so straight and narrow that no tumour of pride, no swellings of lust, no-pack-horses or heavy carriages of the world or devil, may pass by that way anymore; nothing but Christ and His little flock of humble virtues, such as can enter at the straight gate, none else henceforward to walk in it. Prepare we repentance, and all its parts, for the third way and its paths.
4. A fourth is Baptism, the way St. John Baptist came in too; a way that names him so, the way that was always thought to lead to Christ, and His kingdom, that came there in any ordinary way. 'Arise and be baptized,' that is the way to the Lord Jesus. The way He sent His disciples in to bring in the world unto Him, whatever shorter way our new men of late have found for their disciples. The articles and conditions of the covenant of baptism, promised and undertaken by the baptized, either in their own persons, or by proxy, are the title 'paths' of this great way, the several tracks that make it up, the ways and paths we are to walk in, if we intend ever to meet the Lord.
5. The fifth way is God's commandments, a way that we all must make ready for Him; His own way indeed, drawn out by his own hands and fingers; a way of which Himself professes, that He came not to destroy it (as some vainly delude themselves) but to fulfill it, to perfect, to exalt it to a greater height; from the outward act to the inward thought; from the lower degree of virtue to the highest of it; from bare precepts to additional counsels; from mere external performances to right and regular intentions in them. And here, as the moral precepts are the great plain way, so the Christian enhancements of them to the highest pitch, the regulations of them to right intentions and Christian counsels, are the paths, the narrow and straiter paths. The sum and short is this: Holy Christian life and conversation, in all its parts, according to our powers and capacities, is the fifth way to be prepared by them who seek the Lord, and expect to see His face.
6. And yet if there be room and leave for a private conjecture, [22/23] the 'way' of God's providence, in his judgments and mercies towards Jerusalem; the way of his mercy in saving the believing, and destroying the unbelieving Jew, now near at hand, may come in for a sixth way of the Lord; a way, indeed, past finding out in all its secret paths, yet to be prepared for, and more than pointed at by the prophet Isaiah, in that place whence the words are taken, and by S. John in this. God there bids comfort his captive people, for their deliverance from Babylon was now nigh at hand, and their enemies near destruction; call to them, therefore, to prepare themselves for it, to make ready and expect it. And here S. John Baptist tells the people the kingdom of heaven 'is now at hand:' which (by comparing it with that 'wrath to come' threatened to the Pharisees and Sadducees, ver. 7, with his exhortation to flee from it; and by the coming of the 'great and dreadful day of the Lord,' mentioned by the prophet Malachi, iv.5, in the place where S. John Baptist's coming is foretold; and the dreadfulness of it expressed, chap. Iii.2, where he is said to come to prepare his way before him; but, ver. 1, &c., S. John's inviting to repentance to divert or shun it), can be no other than Christ's coming in judgment against Jerusalem, to execute vengeance upon his enemies, and deliver his faithful servants. Vengeance and deliverance,--the two great manifestations of his power and kingdom. And sure no more, then, need to cry out to us to prepare and make right paths against that coming, make make way for His judgments to pass by us, and His mercies to come to us.
Thus you have the ways and paths, observe them: many several paths, but one only way to Christ and heaven, observe that too; and though many ways I showed you, they all come into one Law and Gospel; baptism and repentance, faith and obedience, mercy and judgment, precepts and counsels, all into one. 1. it is 'way,' in the singular, to show that peace and unity is the only way of the Lord, the only way of Christ.
Yet, 2, both 'paths' and way it is. We must descend to particulars, every one to cleanse his own, his own private paths, Not only, 'Show me Thy ways, O Lord,' says David, but 'teach me thy paths' too. Not only to rectify [23/24] the outward action, but the inward thoughts; not to content ourselves with a general profession, but to come to a particular practice of religion of the way of Christ. Observe that too.
Particular practice, I say, and yet, 3, of the general way, of the way generally and catholically held by all: and, further, of all things generally in that way, all the several tracks of virtue, none to be omitted, seeing the paths indefinitely, one as well as another (none, as I hear, excepted), are here to be made straight: that is a third thin I wish observed
But lastly, the way first prepared, then the paths made straight. Christ's way is a way of order. First, a general resolution to make all straight and ready, then a particular entering into every path to do it. Resolve first upon the way of piety, then take the paths that lead best to it; parate first, then facite; prepare good resolutions, then set to do them. Nothing done well before them, nothing well done without them. And viam first, then semitas; the plain way of the Commandments for beginners, the harder and straighter way of counsels for great proficients and perfect men.
II. They way and path thus now found out, we are next to inquire whose it is, or to whom it leads. Viam Domini, 'the Lord's' it is; so the Septuagint and Evangelists all render it in the genitive. And Domini it is too; so the Hebrew in the dative; to him it is, or for him it is; to him it is it leads, for him it is prepared, the preparation all for him.
Viam Domini. 1. His way first, and not our own. His ways are not ours; ours are lust, covetousness, ambition, hypocrisy, mere superficial and external works, vanity, and error. The ways we spoke of, mercy and truth, faith, hope, charity, obedience, and all good ways are His, not ours; we have no good ones of our own. Nay, even our souls, those ways, too, into which He comes, are His: His, and not our own; the soul of the father, and the soul of the son; of the fathers and sons; all mine, says God. Our bodies, too, they are God's; bodies and spirits all His, made and prepared for His own way and service; all again to be prepared by us, that they may be fit for Him to walk and be in.
For, 2, Viam domino it is. To Him all our ways and paths [24/25] must be directed, to His glory and worship: all lead to Him as to the end of all; from Him all good ways comes, to Him all good ways tend: He is Alpha and Omega, is and must be the beginning and end of them. They are Domini et Domino, both of the Lord and to the Lord, all our ways and preparations or all are wrong. To Him as to my Lord the King, visiting us in mercy and gracing us with His presence; and to Him as to my Lord Judge, to visit us in judgment, and punish all offenders; as a Lord to us, or a Lord against us; as our own King in triumph, or another King in fury; and to Him in each consideration there is a proper way, and a proper way of preparing it.
III. And now, thirdly, Be it what way it will, and to the Lord, under what notion or way we will, a preparation there is due, a preparation next enjoined us.
Indeed there is no meeting Him unprepared. Better meet a lion in the way, or a bear robbed of her whelps, than Him unprepared. 'Prepare your hearts unto the Lord,' says the prophet Samuel. And 'make straight paths for your feet,' says the Apostle [writer to the Hebrewes]. Law and Gospel both for preparation. If thou come to serve the Lord, 'prepare thy soul,' says the son of Sirach. 2. If thou goest into His house, prepare thy foot, keep it, keep an eye over it, that it slip not there, says the son of David; go not in rashly and in haste. Prepare thy mouth too, that it be not too hasty to utter anything, says he. If you go anywhere to pray, before you pray, prepare yourself; they who fear the Lord will do so: will prepare their hearts, yes, and ponder their paths too; for so Solomon advises us, 'Ponder the paths of your feet, and let all the ways be established.' Nay, ponder them, and all thy ways shall be established, os it may be read; and so Jotham found it, 'became mighty,' says the text, 'because he prepared his ways before the Lord his God.' No way to become great, mighty and powerful with God and man, like preparing God's ways in righteousness, keeping ourselves straight to the ways of God; a reward sufficient to establish it for a duty. That we may do it as we should, we are no next to inquire what is meant by this preparing and making straight, and how we are to do it.
[25/26] The word in the original is either from yk panim, facies, and may be construed either by faciem date i.e. speciem, make the way look fair, give it a handsome face, and so to prepare the way will be to cleanse the way: or, by faciem obvertere, or à facie amovere, change the face of it, or remove things off the surface of it; and so to prepare it, will be to clear the way of rubs and blocks, to remove our sins out of the way. Or, from jk angulus, a corner, and may be rendered angulate, corner it out, and lay it to the line and rule. And then to prepare, will be to make it smooth, regular and equal.
Put them together, and to prepare the way will be to remove all soil and filth, all blocks and impediments, all roughness and unevenness out of our ways, which are like anywise to hinder our Lord's coming to us; so to put all by, that He may have way to come to us; and we the easier and fuller receive Him when He comes. Thus to prepare His way, will be to remove all hindrances to His coming. To remove our sins by repentance, which else would hinder Him from coming, is to prepare the way; to regulate and order our paths to the rule of His commandments, to the squares of righteousness, is to make straight paths. Both together complete the preparation, which we shall consider first in general, then in particular: first, how His way generally is to be prepared; then how particularly, after a more particular and special way and manner.
We cannot find how in general to prepare His way better than by the words that follow immediately in the Prophet Isaiah, xl:4, and are so repeated also by S. Luke, iii:5: 'Every valley will be filled, and every mountain will be brought low, and the crooked ways will be made straight, and the rough ways will be made smooth.'
'Every valley must be filled;' the empty valleys of our souls filled up with the fruits of all good works; these valleys must stand so thick with such holy corn, with all good fruits, that they laugh and sing, make us sing merrily the praises of the Lord. 2. 'Every mountain and hill must be brought low;' all our proud, high thoughts laid down. The greater mountains and lesser hills, mole hills as well as mountains, [26/27] as well great as less, and as well less as greater sins, cast down; our very natural reason and understanding submitted to the obedience of faith. 3. 'The crooked ways must be made straight;' all our crooked ways, distorted actions, perverse affections, all that is awry or swerving from the rule of God's commandments, must be rectified and set right. 4. 'All the rough ways made smooth;' all our roughness and unevenness, natural or customary, made smooth and level, no stones of offence, no thorns or bushes, hedges or ditches, in the way.
That the way be neither mountainous with pride, nor dark with ignorance, nor dirty with lust, nor thorny with worldly cares, nor hollow with hypocrisy, nor slippery with riot, nor washy with drunkenness, nor tedious through slothfulness, nor uneven with irresolution and inconstancy. Fill the low valleys we must with high heavenly affections and contemplations, with high degree of piety and devotion. Bring down the hills by humility and obedience. Straighten the crooked by righteousness and uprightness. Smooth the rough ways with meekness, gentleness and charity. Pull down the haughty towering thoughts, raise up the grovelling mind, rectify the perverse intentions, smooth the rough and uneven passions of the soul; prepare them all; remove out of them everything that may offend, and bring them all into the way of the Lord.
Thus in general. But we have a more particular and special way: for we may consider the way of the Lord, either as the way of a king (for He is both Lord and King), coming against us with his armies, or as a king coming to us in his triumph, to honour us and rejoice with us.
If we consider the way of the Lord as of one coming against us for destruction, prepare we then as the men of Bethulia did against Holofernes: 'They sent messengers into all the coasts, they possessed themselves beforehand of the tops of the high mountains, they fortified the villages, laid up victuals for the provision of war, and gave charge to keep the passages.' So they prepared, do we so too: possess we the tops of the mountains, by setting our affections upon things above; fortify we the poor villages of our weak natures, by strong and holy resolutions; gather we together [27/28] all kind of provision for our souls out of the Holy Scriptures, by constant reading and meditation; keep all the passages of them with care and vigilance; and send out messengers into all the coasts of heaven and earth, send up our prayers to the God of heaven for help, our desires to the saints upon the earth to assist us with their devotions, advice and company.
Prepare we armour too with Uzziah: 'Shields and spears, and helmets, haberergeons, and bows and slings.' Stand we thus ready armed in the way; our head covered with the hope of salvation for a helmet, our breast armed with righteousness for a breastplate, our body defended with the habergeon of a holy conversation, in our left hand the shield of faith, and in our right hands alms, 'far better than the strongest spear,' says the son of Sirach; the sword of the Holy Spirit, the word of truth girt to our loins; the bow and arrows of the holy fear of God's judgments hanging on our shoulders; the cross of Christ for our sling, and Himself for the stone, to smite our grand enemy in the forehead, and put him to a perpetual shame. Thus make ready to entertain Him.
But if, 2, he come to us in the way of triumph, or grace, and favour, then prepare we the way as is usual at the entertainment of great princes. Now at such times, they sweep or wash the ways and streets, they pave, they gravel them, they rail them in, they hang them with tapestry, they strew them with rushes and flowers, they set guards to fence the ranks, and place themselves in order to cry out Vivat Rex, or some such thing, to receive them with joyful acclamations.
Let us go and do likewise. Wash all our ways with tears, sweep them with the besom of confession, pave them with pious vows and purposes, spread them over with fair amendment, rail them in by the obedience of faith and daily caution, adorn them by the imitation of the lives of holy saints, set them like so many pictures in tapestry before you, strew them with sweet herbs and flowers: the roses of chastity, the lilies of purity, the balm of charity, the hyssop of humility, the violets of patience, the woodbines of hope and love, the bays of constancy, all the sweets of piety and virtue, Guard the way; guard all the ways with attention and godly [28/29] zeal, and make all the streets and ways resound again with the echo of praises and thanksgivings. Thus it is to prepare his way.
And thus every way of His we spoke of must be prepared. Our souls so ordered, our meditations of the law so regulated, our repentance so adorned, our baptisms so accompanied, our obedience so fulfilled, God's providence and way of dealing with us so accepted, with clean hearts, grounded resolutions, an even temper, with care and diligence, with exemplary virtue, sweetness and moderation, zeal and attention, humility and thanksgiving.
All this while, 'make straight,' must not be forgotten. All this must be done now also with upright hearts, sincere intentions; not in outward form and appearance only, not for fear of punishment, not for hope of reward and praise, not merely to avoid danger, nor yet, lastly, to be seen of men. All these the Pharisees did, and yet for all that, none of them keeps the law, says Christ. The law is not fulfilled by the external act, the commandments not kept by the outward performance; it is the inward spirit of charity, when they are done with that, that only keeps them: it is that only makes right ways, sound paths; without it they are but rotten ways, or hollow ones; such as Christ will not choose to come by, or rather will choose not to come by; right good sound ways they must be, if they be His.
And, 2, right steraight ways too, no turning to the right hand or to the left; not do one way in adversity, another way in prosperity; one religion when the days are calm and quiet, another when the days are stormy and troublesome. Rectas facite in deserto, so it is the Prophet, and Hebrew text. 'Make his paths straight in the desert,' even when we are deserted of all; when we are in the barren and dry wilderness, where no water is, no earthly comfort about us, in the greatest tribulation, we must keep us still to uprightness and honesty; that is the way to Christ: however for awhile He to be far from us, thither it will bring us after a while; keep innocency, and do the thing that is right, and 'that will bring a man peace at the last.'
Yet, 3, one path or two made straight is not sufficient; semitas--it is an indefinite somewhat akin to a universal; [29/30] it must be all; he who fails or offends in one, is guilty of all. If all be not straight,- all the paths as well as the ways that you have heard, all the little ways as well as the great, according to our poor power,--if at least we do not study and endeavour it, it is not right.
Nor it is so, or will it be, unless we take in, 4, the Prophet's in deserto too; desert and forsake ourselves a little, renounce our own ways quite, seek not our own but His; straighten ourselves a little of our own lusts and liberties, of our own desires and ways: that the only way to make His straight, and make Christ come straight to us.
V. We have one point yet behind: whom it is to whom all this is spoken, and is given in charge. I confess, the ministers and preachers of the Word, are the public messengers and harbingers who are sent to prepare the Lord's way (as St. John Baptist was) before Him: yet everyone must sweep his own door. For the words are by St. John Baptist preached to all Pharisees and Sadducees, publicans and soldiers, and all the people who came to him; everyone to have a share: and so he gives it them; tells people and publicans and soldiers what to do; sets everyone his path, his part of the way to prepare and straighten. Give me leave to do so too.
The ministers of the Gospel, they come first; they have the greatest share with St. John Baptist, to go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way. But how? To give knowledge of salvation, says old Zacharias, to His people for the remission of sins; or somewhat more, even to give remission too, to give absolution; so to absolve them, is some part at least of the minister's share; but to baptize also with the Baptist, and to consecrate with Christ Himself, is to prepare His ways too, to make way for Him. To raise the valleys: to comfort the dejected, the cast down and afflicted soul against his sorrows, the penitent against his sins, the fearful against the fear of death, the weak-hearted against trouble and persecution; to encourage them to lift up their heads and look to the recompense of reward, to raise up the grovelling souls of men from earth and flesh to heaven and heavenly business. 2.To cast down [30/31] the mountain of pride and singularity, schism and heresy, that lift up themselves against the obedience of Christ. To rectify the perverse and crooked souls of men. And to smooth and soften them; to lay the way of Christ smooth and plain before them, make them know His yoke is easy and His burden light, by continual preaching to them, and instructing them, so preparing them for the way of Christ. Thus the minister prepares His way in the people's hearts; sometimes cleansing the young infant's way by baptism, and sometimes rectifying the young and old man's ways by advice and exhortation; sometimes clearing them with absolution, sometimes purifying them with the Holy Sacrament, some way or other always preparing them against the Lord's coming. And it lies upon him so to do.
And, 2, for the people. There needs no more than has been said. The ways already mentioned concern us all. There is none so righteous but needs some kind of preparation; and he that is not, he needs them all.
And if we consider now the time, so much the more in that His coming is nearer whom we prepare for. It is now but a few days to the day He once came to us in the flesh. Let us think of that, and prepare ourselves to give thanks; to cry Hosanna, blessed is He who comes, blessed, this blessed way of His coming, and blessed, the blessed day of His so coming.
It is not many more days, 2, to the coming of His flesh and blood in the Holy Sacrament unto us. We are expecting and hoping for it, and it is fit we should be preparing for it. Better preparation than you have heard, I cannot give you for the one or the other. Only I may add in solitudine again. Withdraw yourselves aside into some desert and solitary place to prepare you in: retire to your souls and to your business. 'I shall bring her into the wilderness.' says God, concerning Israel, 'and speak comfortably unto her.' The place to hear the voice of divine and heavenly comfort is in our solitude, when we are alone, God only and ourselves together. Remember then we go into our closets, and there prepare ourselves; forget no point of the preparation, but sweep and cleanse and smooth and adorn our souls with all holy virtues or resolutions, and come well [31/32] guarded with attention, care and vigilance, that nothing unbeseeming pass from us in the way; raise up our spirit with holy thoughts and heavenly desires; cast down our souls with reverence and humility; come without any roughness or uneveness in our affections or behaviour, in our ways or paths; so will the Lord come, and come with comfort, and take us with Him, and bring us safely to the end of our way, the end of our hope, to those things which neither eye has seen nor ear heard nor ever entered into the heart of man, which He has prepared for them who prepare for Him, in the city prepared for us in the heavens.