The Great Story of Advent
Today we take a good look at the other people involved in the Advent timetable. We always think about Mary, of course, but there are other important people in this tableau. There are Zachariah and Elizabeth, and Elizabeth was Mary’s cousin, an old woman, and not just old, but barren. It would have been quite acceptable, and legal, for Zachariah to find himself a wife who could bear children, but he did not, which tells us that he loved her. The story is a great story, full of angels, Zachariah does not believe that angel that tells him his old wife is going to have a baby, and so the angel shuts his voice and he cannot talk. The neighbors knew something was going on, now they really know. Elizabeth is getting bigger and bigger, and Zachariah cannot talk. Finally the baby is born, and they ask him what the baby’s name is. He takes a stick and writes “John” on the ground. John?? They are astonished! There is no one in your family named John. Suddenly he can speak. “His name is John.”
We sometimes talk about what if Mary had said “no” instead of “yes” to the angel. But what about Elizabeth? She also was a part of this big tapestry, she also could have said “no.” Zachariah didn’t say “no” he said “really?!?” and for his trouble couldn’t talk for several months, but when it came down to the wire, he could see that there were bigger things going on, so he got with the program.
Elizabeth is in a long line of beloved barren women. She reminds us of Hannah, Samuel’s mother, and it is no accident that the Magnificat, the hymn of praise that Mary sings, is actually Hannah’s song of praise. Both Mary and Elizabeth have no business having babies, and they do it anyway. And then John grows up. John knew he was a special child, and he was raised in a tradition that had space for that. He was raised as a Nazarite, never cutting the hair, never drinking wine, and offering special gifts of lamb and bread at the temple – just like Samuel, Hannah’s child, had been raised. The angel comes to John, and says: Go!
So John goes out, and starts preaching to the people, calling for a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins. Where does this belong in Advent? Why are we reading about this here?
It is only recently that Advent was understood as preparation for Christmas-past. Rather, it was preparation for the coming of Christ-future, the invitation of Christ to be born into our lives, not a recollection of the baby Jesus. Yes, we understand the future, what we plan to do, in the larger context of the past, but the past needs to point to the future. It is as though we spent all of our time planning for and participating in the college reunion, and never actually started working!
What happens if we think about Advent as a time of spiritual pilgrimage as well as a time of joyful expectancy?[pullquoteright]What happens if we think about Advent as a time of spiritual pilgrimage as well as a time of joyful expectancy?[/pullquoteright]
When I think of spiritual pilgrimage, I have two images pop up. One is the Camino pilgrimage in Spain, where people walk the many miles to Santiago, and frequently have spiritual awarenesses as a result of the hard work, the new people and places they encounter. The other image I have is of the second time I went to the Holy Lands, and Sue and I went with a group from the Episcopal church we was in at the time, and the Israeli guide had our group labeled as a pilgrimage, because we were coming as a church group. He was a secular Jew, and all he knew of Christians making this pilgrimage were either the Catholics, who were happy to see “the place where Jesus did something” or the conservative Protestants, who prayed and read their Bibles all the time. We were very confusing to him, because we did neither. We made it clear that we did not believe that Jesus “slept here,” although he could have, but we really didn’t care, so clearly we were not like the Catholics, and at the same time, we drank wine and told rather wonderful jokes, so obviously we were not Protestants either. His conclusion was that we were secular, like he was, only Christian, instead of Jewish. Imagine his confusion when we pulled out bread and wine and prayerbooks beside the Jordan River, and had an amazing eucharist beside the water. It was a very moving time. We saw a boat that scientists can tell us actually comes from the time of Jesus, a small, home-made fishing boat. We laughed uproariously at the other “pilgrims” who were on a modern boat watching “Jesus” walking on the water, and we got very serious when we saw a storm quickly come up on the Galilee, and thought about the little fishing boats that Peter and Andrew and the other fishermen around Jesus would have been in, and how dangerous that would have been. No wonder it was stunning to them when Jesus spoke to the storm and it suddenly was still! There are many ways to make a spiritual pilgrimage, and we came back changed from our experience.
But what about repentance? Repentance in Advent? We need to remember what repentance means. It is not about shame. Anytime you hear someone connect repentance to shame, that is a form of emotional manipulation. Repentance is about a change of mind, a change of behavior. It is not about feeling a certain way, it is a change of direction in mind and action.
[pullquoteleft]What sort of change of mind and action might be asked of us as we prepare a place for the Christ to be born in us anew this year?[/pullquoteleft]What sort of change of mind and action might be asked of us as we prepare a place for the Christ to be born in us anew this year? This is not for us to think about how we should decorate, or how we should be pulling it all together, so Jesus will be happy in a beautiful new home. Rather, the place for Christ is best when we are fully open and fully ourselves.
For some of us, it will be the stopping of some behaviors or the beginning of new ones. Rev. Brian Taylors (in Credo Reflections) asks: How can Christ be born in us if we never take the time to pray, to wonder, to invite him into this day, this circumstance, this ordinary stable we live in? We need to stop what we are doing, take a deep breath, take a look at the direction we are going, and perhaps choose a different way. How can Christ find room in our hearts if they are filled with busyness, worry, stimulation, and stress? Busyness and worry are like clutter in our hearts. Repentance, in this case, may be very active, a change of direction in how we spend some of our time.
On the other hand, repentance that prepares the way for Christ may be the simple act of getting real with God. We don’t have to wallow in shame in order to admit our daily imperfection, our constant need for God. We need only to be humble. The root of the word humility is the same as humus, the earth, which is the same as human. In our true nature, we are earthy, real, dirty.
And so to repent in this sense is to come back to earth, to leave our delusions of self-perfection behind and be who and where we are, this day, naked before God. What would that mean for you?
This Advent, we use our time to quietly, joyfully, and faithfully await the appearance of God’s gift in Jesus Christ, in history and in our lives. But we can also use this time to repent, to change direction of mind and action, to come back down to earth, so that we are more ready to receive Christ, not the Baby Jesus, but the Lord of life, when he comes.
This week Mary Vargas, Sue and I went over to Berkeley and listened to Bishop Gene Robinson hold forth at CDSP. It was a small group, seminarians and faculty, and then a few alumni and others. He spoke most directly to the seminarians, and as usual, challenged all of us to be the body of Christ, to get our hands dirty, to speak truth to power, to not be afraid.
When I think about these things, leaving behind delusions of being in control and being humble before God, not claiming busyness as though it were a badge but being quiet and joyful, of turning from the way the world tells me to be and looking to the way Jesus taught us, I want to cry because I realize how far off base I have gotten. And then I hear the voice calling my name, saying get up, wipe your eyes, turn from the way you have been going, and now, let’s get back to work.
This is especially important when we come up against pain, old pain and new pain. Old pain like Pearl Harbor and Executive Order 9066 and new pain like Afghanistan and Gaza. We are not in control, we often do not act like the Body of Christ, we are not humble, we try to hide from God, and then we come to Advent. God calls our names, calls us back, no matter what we have done or left undone, calling us to turn from the ways we have gone back to the way of God, the way of love.
It is not easy, it is not fun to admit we have lost our way, it is humbling, we don’t like to humble ourselves, and it is the way to life. We are in the middle of Advent, that time when we look at the coming of Christ as well as the coming of Jesus, the Lord of life.
I invite you to stop, to listen, to pay attention, and to re-orient, another good word to use for repentance, to make sure that what you are doing leads to life. Do you hear the word of God? Listen!
Our Readings Today
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