Highways and paths

In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” so says our first reading. Highways are coming from one place, going to another, but the places were already there before we built the highways. Makes me think about cities, towns and villages – or more specifically, why they are where they are in the first place. Cities along the seacoast, more particularly, on inlets, rivers, and bays leading to the ocean make sense to me.  They are places with harbors, protection from direct ocean storms, access to fresh water, and other factors. Water certainly plays a major role in locating cities – not only for drinking purposes, but for transportation and strategic control of an area. The Shawnee nation understood that. The three rivers area of western Pennsylvania was the center of the Shawnee nation. Today, we call that center Pittsburgh.

Denver’s location makes sense to me. People are heading west, having crosses the flatlands of Kansas and eastern Colorado, and suddenly they reach the Rocky Mountains. I just imagine that internal voice saying… “I don’t think so. This is far enough. Looks like a nice place right here on the Platte River.” Next thing you know: Denver.

Atlanta is a curious case. The place where Peachtree Creek joins the Chattahoochee River marked the boundary of the Creek and Cherokee nations. It was the traditional place for talks, trade, and all manner of life. Cities become centers of commerce, trade, culture, and other ventures. The next thing: cities wanted to easily connect with each other.

In 1836 the big cities of Savannah, Macon, and Augusta decided they wanted a rail junction to join their railroads before pushing west and north to Chattanooga, already a major rail junction connecting the Eastern US and the growing western territories.

How did cities decide which is the best pathway to get to where you want to go? Often times, that path has already been established by people who lived in the area or explorers. The route from the rail junction in Atlanta to Chattanooga largely followed existing trails that the Cherokee and Creek people had used for generations.  Without so much as a “thank you very much” those trails became railroad right of ways.

In Loudoun County, Virginia where I used to live. Lots of the older roads are, shall we say, a bit meandering, not exactly as the crow flies. In the mid-1980s the county historians completed a project to recover older roadway names. Clark’s Gap Road sounds so much better than County 665. Part of the project also recovered why roads showed up where they did. Many of the answers were: “well that’s where the cows went.”  And then people walked there, the path gotten widened, paved, and pretty soon you had right-fine road.

Maybe what I was really musing about from the beginning was not so much the cities but the way in which pathways become pathways, roads become roads, and we reach our final destination. And having a clear understanding of the destination is key, even if sometimes a little less than clear.  When they were planning the rail junction at what became Atlanta, the goal was clear, Chattanooga.

As we begin our Advent journey, our destination is not as easily located as Chattanooga. Yet we still journey. What was last year’s Advent season like for you. You set out on the journey and you arrived somewhere. Where was that? What were you like when you arrived? Is the answer somewhat akin to: I arrived at Christmas wondering where all the time went, not having gotten everything done I wanted to do, and, while excited on Christmas Day, there was a secret and quiet, “Thanks be to God it’s over…”

Of course, the pandemic makes everything different this year, but your still have the Advent journey ahead. No worries, Advent has always been a season to explore. Maybe last Advent’s exploration was a dead end. This year probably needed to take a new path; now we have need to take a new path.

Perhaps there is no road at all; no junction offering choices and new directions. Sometimes you simply have to walk and create a new path through the forest, the swamp, the plains, the mountains, the wilderness, or whatever topography forms your world. There will be rivers to cross, ravines to go around, and the pathway will not always be straight or clear. Yet, you will create the way by the very journey you undertake.

The 20th century essayist Lu Xun understands this. He wrote, “Hope is like a path in the countryside. Originally, there is nothing – but as people walk this way again and again, a path appears.” We walk the journey each year, not retracing the dead-ends, put taking new ways – and a new path appears.  A new Hope begins to take shape.

Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

Each year we arrive at Advent to hear John the Baptist and be reminded we do not journey alone. We are called by the Baptist to prepare and again set out. This year’s journey is across a new and foreign landscape – a Christmas when not all the family can gather and be together. Families with loved ones deployed, with a loved one who no longer remembers Christmases past, a Christmas with new additions to the family, a Christmas different from last year.

Life and circumstances have made this Advent different, yet the destination remains the same. Are you prepared? This readings of this 2nd Sunday in Advent call us to pause and consider: this year’s landscape, the lessons from journey’s past, and the voice of the Baptist calling us onward. We gauge our beginnings, as best we can we mark journey’s end.

Maybe we know we are heading to Chattanooga. Maybe this year calls for a new destination. Either way, we journey. And in the journey we are called to make visible a new Hope in the path we create. This is Advent.

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