One of my first public appearances as parish priest of St Mary’s was at the official opening of the Fochabers bypass. I didn’t do much – I was just standing among other officials and spectators, looking handsome (that was the most demanding bit). After about 30 minutes the first cars were allowed to pass along the route. Since then drivers have enjoyed their unhindered drive and the local residents a quieter and safer life. Seemingly everybody’s happy.
Of course, building new roads doesn’t always go smoothly. Just recently the Aberdeen bypass has got the green light after a long-lasting legal battle; and in Elgin there is an ongoing protest against a new bypass. Understandably people fight for their own interests, when others try to persuade them for the greater good. This is why people organise public protests, and sometimes take on legal action. It might be irritating, it might delay or change plans, it might generate additional costs. But the only other way is the Chinese way: people have been forcibly evicted, bulldozers have levelled off their homes, and new roads and buildings have been built. I suppose this way of doing business doesn’t appeal to anybody.
I think this comparison is really important when we think about today’s gospel and the call by St John the Baptist. Listen to it again: ‘Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled in, every mountain and hill will be laid low, winding ways will be straightened and rough roads made smooth.’ In pursuit of glorious results it’s easy to overlook the personal circumstances of other individuals, and trample them down in the name of the greater good. This lack of sensitivity can be similarly present in institutionalised and individual actions. The simplest way is accusing others of being obstructive and stigmatizing them as troublemakers. Then they become public enemies, and it makes attacking them much easier.
Do you apply these words to yourself as a victim or as an oppressor? I’m sorry for asking you this question; I know it’s uncomfortable and unsettling. Of course we always see ourselves as the aggrieved. And even when we hurt people, it’s because they hurt us first – so we simply enact justice, don’t we? It’s like children in the playground, accusing each other of starting the argument or the scuffle. Is it possible to establish who kicked off? Not a chance. So usually both parties are punished. But among grown-ups it should work in different ways.
One of the greatest achievements of humankind is the ability to solve problems in a peaceful way, in talks and negotiations. Christianity has added another, hardly overrated, ability: forgiveness. When grudges, resentments and wounds seem to have started back in time immemorial, and going backwards leads nowhere, the only way forward is forgiveness. It’s the only way to stop reopening old wounds and to start a new chapter with new hope.
In today’s gospel St John the Baptist calls us to prepare the way for the Lord. His call is crowned with great promise: ‘All mankind shall see the salvation of God.’ Blessed John Paul II in 1979 said, in outlining man’s situation in the modern world, that ‘man is the way for the Church, this man in all the truth of his life, in his conscience, in his continual inclination to sin and at the same time in his continual aspiration to truth, the good, the beautiful, justice and love.’ If you have raised barricades in your heart, Jesus will not come, because He doesn’t use bulldozers. The Lord comes to each one of us in and through a man: the one that is near you.