Year C, Advent 2 December 9, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
The primary theme of the Second Sunday of Advent is preparation. We are called to prepare for the Incarnation of God. We prepare not only to remember His Incarnation in a specific time and place in history (the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius in the territory governed by both Pilate and his local proxy Herod – pretty specific), but also to prepare for that to happen again, as promised; preparation for the remembrance of things past and anticipation of things to come. Preparation.
There is a second aspect of the theme for this Sunday of Advent that ensures that our preparations are not merely making lists and checking them twice or any of the other sundry pre-holiday tasks before us, as lovely as they may be. That second aspect is that these preparations are done in the way of the prophets. Our readings today demonstrate the prophetic nature of this preparation. We hear from the prophet Baruch, we hear from the prophet Zechariah about his son the prophet John the Baptist, whom St. Luke identifies as the one prophesied by the prophet Isaiah, the “voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” That’s a lot of prophets prophesying, which is a pretty complicated thing because prophets are complicated. Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote that prophets are amongst the most unpleasant and challenging human beings who have ever lived! So, in perfect Scriptural form, the good leads to the bad which leads back to the good: the Incarnation leads to the Crucifixion, which then, of course, leads to the Resurrection and the salvation of the world. Like the prophets prophesying: Complicated!
The Christmas story is fantastic! The angel of the Lord announcing unto this very young woman, that she would bear God, the very son of the very God! Joseph, the dutiful, faithful man, takes his dream to heart and keeps Mary his betrothed in a hard to accept situation to say the least. Then there is the registration, and the long journey, and no place for them at the inn, yet lo, the Christ child is born: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. What a beautiful way to tell the story of God’s definitive entrance into the world. Fantastic.
John, the “prophet of the Most High” as his father describes him, is right in the middle of that fantastic story. You know how it goes, right? Elizabeth, John’s mother, was a relative of Mary’s. Her husband Zechariah was a priest, and that year he was chosen to offer incense in Holy of Holies. While he was in there, Gabriel, the angel of the Lord, appeared and announced unto him that Elizabeth would conceive and bear a son who would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah doubted Gabriel, “I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” (That’s a nice way to put it. My eye doctor used “as you keep having birthdays” as a soft lead in to the new progressive lenses I age appropriately now have on order). In any case, for that moment of doubt Zechariah was struck mute until the day the promise was fulfilled.
Sure enough Elizabeth conceived and he was silenced. As these things go, she gave birth, and eight days later the boy was to be circumcised and named. Everyone assumed he would be named Zechariah, Jr. as most were give family names, but no, Elizabeth affirmed the angel’s instruction that his name is John. Doubtful, they went to Zechariah, and confirmed this and immediately his mouth was opened and he proclaimed his great canticle, the announcement of his new-born son’s prophetic mission.
The stories of these two women, one too old, one too young; and these two men, both obedient to God and both attentive to their duties… what hope! This is the hope of Christmas. That is what they are preparing us for. These stories fill our hearts with hope, they speak of the fulfillment of the promise God made to us all those centuries ago, to Abraham our spiritual father. We are not alone. God is with us, Emmanuel and we will be saved from our enemies. And for such an auspicious occasion, we must prepare! There are the inner preparations, the stilling of our souls, the contemplation of God’s blessings. There are outer preparations too, decking the halls and such! Christmas is celebrated when it is because early Christians co-opted pagan winter solstice observances, including the holly, mistletoe, evergreen trees, symbols life of persisting in the darkest days. These are the makings of a Hallmark moment.
That’s nice, isn’t it? I kind of want to stay here, you know, at Christmas. Even if we drop the sugar plums, just keeping to the birth of that sweet, sweet baby Jesus, the cattle lowing, the hay in the manger… Perfect. A perfect child, born in perfect love; every little thing is going to be alright. And He is perfect and often it can feel all right, sometimes it even is all right, in our own little worlds at least. You can sense it, though, right? What I am about to say? It is all those things, perfect, beautiful, joyful, Hallmark-able, and there is also the big cosmic bummer of a “but…” We can call it the Advent “but…”
I found this amazing essay by Thomas Merton called, “Advent: Hope or Delusion.” A little light holiday fare, and timely as tomorrow is the 50th Anniversary of his death. In this essay Fr. Merton writes, “…we may at times be able to show the world Christ in moments when all can clearly discern in history, some confirmation of the Christian message.” Of course we can. Sometimes it all comes together: the Nativity, true love, someone giving their life to save another in the name of Jesus Christ… and it need not be that dramatic, the billions and billions of minor acts of decency and kindness that fill most of the days of most of our lives are clear confirmations in time of the Christian message of faith, hope and love. “But,” that’s Merton, not me, “But the fact remains that our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, and not as it might be.” And the world is not as it might be. Right? Anyone who helped at Egan this week saw in technicolor that is not the case. The suffering right outside these doors… We don’t need to go to the border or to Allepo to see world class suffering, just look out your window as you drive through Eugene. It was 31 and raining as I fell asleep in my warm bed on Friday. Can you imagine being out in that with nowhere for you to go to get out of it, nowhere? It is not that there is no room at the inn, it is that there is no inn.
Suffering is endemic, it is part and parcel of the human condition. Loneliness. Worry. Addiction. Pain. Jealousy. Anger. Depression. Betrayal. Resentment. Grief. Fear and loathing. Sickness unto death… and that is just what is going on in this room. …the billions and billions of minor defeats and losses that touch all of our lives are clear confirmations that it is not as it might be. Kind of curdles the sweet creaminess of the egg nog to think about all of it.
This is the opening paragraph of Merton’s essay. “The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.”
I am working on an elevator speech, too. I am always working on it, and this paragraph, this line, “…a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.” is an important Tetris piece falling into place.
This vision of the world, this Adventide vision of the world was made manifest here on Wednesday night, in this building. It was one of the best nights this church has ever had. Every space was full, like full full, not only of people, but of the human experience, the best and the worst we have to offer and endure. Life happened here, w/holy full life.
It started with Egan volunteers downstairs, bustling in the kitchen, laying cloths on the tables, putting out the sleeping mats as guests began to gather, huddling outside against the cold. (They can’t come in ‘til 6:30). The Choristers were upstairs. They were rehearsing for the Christmas Eve pageant. Harrison and Brigid play Joseph and Mary. “Behold the handmaid of the lord, let it be for me according to your word!” Be still a father’s heart. (And in this case, father is a double entendre). And then they ate tacos the Reesors made in the green room, while the Embodied Religion class worked on posture while kneeling and discerned what saying the Lord’s Prayer feels like with your hands out, as opposed slouching. And more guests gathered, still outside, but in the new awning there is electricity and there was a coffee pot going. That helps. The Body class ended, the pageant turned into Chorister rehearsal, a volunteer came up to find a pair of pants because one of the guest’s backside was peeking out through a two foot long rip, then AA came in, but were in the yellow room because downstairs was engaged. That’s an Advent story itself, recovery communities. Everyone brought together in loving community through utter brokenness and powerlessness. The stories of such suffering falling on open and understanding ears… that’s a glimpse of the Commonwealth. And as Choristers ended and went their ways, shuttles showed up and guests streamed in. Everyone was cold and hungry. Harassed. Agitated. Sick. The image that sticks with me is this about-to-be double amputee. He was sick, really sick and he needed to get to the bathroom, and he couldn’t get his leg on, so Skip and another volunteer carried him there. And it is a little too late, and there is a mess, and loving, caring people are helping and cleaning it, him up and that is beautiful, Christian beautiful and this is his life. I have met this man before. I can’t fathom living his life. And his life intersects with our lives in this place through the life and death of Jesus Christ the savior and redeemer of the world. All of it, swirling right here, in this little parish on a Wednesday night in early December. (And speaking of swirling, Thursday morning the plumbing back up down stairs, it often does, and this time we need to jack hammer up the cement to fix a systemic problem, but within an hour of the plumber’s diagnosis, we found the money, and within our operating budget). All of that happening right here, in our community.
Fr. Merton writes, “The fact that the world is other than it might be does not alter the truth that Christ is present in it and that His plan has been neither frustrated nor changed: indeed, all will be done according to His will.”
Seeing the world with eyes wide open, the good, the bad and the rest of it, and remembering, actively remembering where it all leads: to God. That is preparation in the way of the prophets: the hills made low, the paths made straight, the dawn from on high breaking upon us, all bathed in the holy light of Christ. All is not well, not yet. There is no avoiding the crooked road, the narrow gate, the shadow of death, that is our path, that is the human condition. Yes, there will be victory, of this we are assured, but it is a victory in which we must accept that loss happens, too, “…a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen.” We can’t avoid, we mustn’t deny the tragedy, the loss, the death, the pain and grief of life, but it is not the end of the story.
On this Second Sunday of Advent, I’ll give the good monk the final word. “The Advent mystery in our own lives is the beginning of the end of all, in us, that is not yet Christ. The beginning of the end of unreality. And that is surely a cause of joy!” AMEN