Advent: A Season for Road Construction
Dyed-in-the-wool Minnesotans often brag to those from milder climates about our two seasons: winter and road construction—not that they are completely discrete as more and more all the time, road work reaches even into these chilly winter months! We value our roads even as we take them for granted. They allow life to happen even as we complain about their unevenness and even as we are stuck in traffic. We who live in an age where tax dollars are heavily tied to road infrastructure at city, county and state levels might be surprised to realize that roads for the Romans were even more highly prized and prioritized.
The network of roads radiating out from Rome that they painstakingly built were the glory and pride of the Roman Empire. Some of these long, straight roads followed ancient trade routes, others were newly created in the wake of conquering a particular district. All of them led to and from Rome! The highly sophisticated transportation infrastructure of the Romans might have covered at its peak as much as 250,000 miles and cumulatively took several hundred years to build as a sign of great ingenuity and daring on the part of Roman engineers and intense effort on the part of laborers. A number of modern roads were built on the foundations of these ancient Roman roads and many segments still exist as far flung as Portugal, Britain and Turkey.
Writing for the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Mark Cartwright, a writer based in Italy paints a vivid picture of these arduous construction projects: “To achieve the objective of constructing the shortest routes possible between two points (often not visible one to the other), all manner of engineering difficulties had to be overcome. Once extensive surveying was carried out to ensure the proposed route was actually straight and determine what various engineering methods were required, marshes had to be drained, forests cut through, creeks diverted, bedrock channeled, mountainsides cut into, rivers crossed with bridges, valleys traversed with viaducts, and tunnels built through mountains. Once all that was done, roads had to be leveled, reinforced with support walls or terracing and then, of course, maintained, which they were for over 800 years.”
Building and maintaining these roads was no easy task, but the dividends were real. Roman engineers sought to connect cities, major towns and military bases because they knew the power of roads as a means of conquest, trade, the free movement of armies, people and goods as well as ideas. Ultimately it was the roads (and waterways) around the Mediterranean world that allowed for the rapid diffusion of Christianity especially through the travels of the Apostles and their collaborators in the early Church.
John the Baptist emerges at the start of the second week of our Advent season as a sort of over-eager foreman on the job site. He comes with his usual refrain drawn from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah: “Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth”. Easier said than done! It took the Romans more than five hundred years and should we be able to accomplish a no less serious task in less than a month (the season of Advent)? John’s call is for us to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming and our going out to meet Him in faith. This is the noblest purpose for a road: facilitating the encounter between the Creator and His creatures. This is a task that takes a lifetime because the building of a road necessitates that it will be used and steadily maintained if it is not to fall into disuse and degradation. The filling of valleys and cutting down of high places provides a dual image of the necessary labor of this Advent season: augmenting and filling in what is lacking in our life of faith as well as cutting out what is exaggerated and gets in the way of our communion with God.
Straight lines were always to be preferred in the building of roads, because the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and every inch of road laid is a herculean undertaking. Our Lady’s Advent journey from Nazareth to the hill country of Ein Karem where she visited her cousin Elizabeth provides an example of a direct route made in faith. As we have celebrated the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception this weekend we choose Mary as one of our guides in the necessary work of forging an ever straighter path to God. She who carried Christ within her invites us to do whatever we can in these days of Advent to “advance secure in the glory of God” (Baruch 5:7, first reading from today’s Mass).
Our God desires to come to us and He desires that we come to Him—but if we are honest, there are many obstacles and barriers to this coming to pass. One of the great gifts that we have as followers of Christ is the gift of Mary’s intercession for us which is a sort of direct ‘short cut’ to God’s deepest desires for us. As GK Chesterton said in an unforgettable line, “But Our Lady, reminding us especially of God Incarnate, does in some degree gather up and embody all those elements of the heart and the higher instincts, which are the legitimate short cuts to the love of God.” Her presence as Mother to the Church and Lady of Advent is a gift which perfectly complements the strong and unrelenting call of St. John the Baptist to be converted and to decrease so that Christ may increase in us (cf. John 3:30).
One of the greatest means of accomplishing the road construction that this season calls us to is the Sacrament of Penance. Please do not miss an opportunity to make an honest, humble Advent confession (see times below). Please note these times are in addition to the regular confession times on p. 6 that are offered around our campuses:
United in the joy of the journey,