A Different Kind of Advent and Christmas
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. December 6, 2020
Earlier this week, my friend Paul posted the following reflection from Buddhist monk and mystic Thich Nhat Hahn:
There is a story in Zen circles about a man and a horse. The horse is galloping quickly, and it appears that the man on the horse is going somewhere important. Another man, standing alongside the road, shouts, "Where are you going?" and the first man replies, "I don't know! Ask the horse!" This is also our story. We are riding a horse, we don't know where we are going, and we can't stop. The horse is the energy of our habits and social patterns pulling us along, and we are powerless. We are always running, and it has become a habit. We struggle all the time, whether awake or asleep. Because we are at war within ourselves, we can easily start a war with others. - Thich Nhat Hanh
Each year, Advent is given to us, a time of preparation, of joyful anticipation of a glorious birth. It is a time which could and should be an invitation to slow down and even get off that galloping horse, but we have made of it an even busyer and more hectic time than most, as we try to prepare for the “perfect Christmas.”
Obviously, things are looking a little different this year. The new government restrictions on Christmas gatherings are inviting us to explore alternative ways of marking this holy season. We could, of course, just binge-watch a few more seasons of The Crown on Netflix, or some of those corny Hallmark Christmas movies, or shop on the internet for things we don’t really need. Or maybe – just maybe – we could live Advent. Not just as a time to “get ready for Christmas”, but as an opportunity for inner transformation, for getting in touch with what we really want – and need – and to see how the coming of Christ responds to those deeper needs within us.
Today’s readings invite us to do precisely this. They testify to the earth-shaking, transformative power of a God who comes into our lives. Isaiah speaks of a transformation in the very landscape: mountains levelled, valleys raised up, uneven ground levelled – all to make “a straight path” for the coming of God. As I listened to the reading, immediately the strains of those glorious arias from Handel’s Messiah, made the words come alive in a new way:
“Comfort ye my people … speak tenderly to Jerusalem … a voice cries out in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord! Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain made low … and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed … He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs in his arms.”
For Christians, the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy is the coming of Jesus, announced by John the Baptist. It is, as we begin our reading of the Gospel of St Mark in this “Year B” of the liturgical cycle, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” John marks the connection between the Old Testament with the New, the time of prophecy and the time of fulfilment: Jesus comes to inaugurate a new Covenant in the Spirit.
Not content with a reshaping of the external landscape, the Baptist invites his hearers to focus on the inner transformations required to welcome the Kingdom of God. John comes proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” He calls the people of his time to what we might today call an “extreme makeover”: not the perfect house or the perfect fashion look, but rather the reshaping of the inner landscape of their lives. He calls them to a journey of ongoing conversion and transformation. He spoke to their reality, to their hearts, to their deep hunger for transformation, for a new beginning. And they responded.
There were lots of “official” religious leaders in Palestine two thousand years ago: scribes and priests and lawyers and Pharisees and Sadducees. And yet for the common people, it was John who became an object of fascination. They looked to him for an answer to their problems, for the healing of their wounds, for a way out of the messes they had gotten themselves into. What was it about this eccentric, strangely dressed desert figure that had people flocking out to the wilderness to catch a glimpse of him, to hear his challenging message, to accept his call to conversion through a baptism of repentance?
Perhaps, for some, it was for the same reason that people today listen to Oprah or Pope Francis or Rabbi Jonathan Sacks or Stephen Colbert or James Martin or whoever happens to be inspiring you right now. It is not just about being entertained or distracted. God knows we get enough of that. But we also need prophets who speak a truth we need to hear, who become symbols of the possibility of healing, who are bearers of hope in times that can so often feel dreary and hopeless.
Jesus assures us, later in the Gospel, that John the Baptist was “the greatest” of the long line of prophets in the Jewish tradition. Why was this?
Not because John was someone you could turn to for a half-hour, quick-fix solution to your problems. John was a prophet in that he called for something far more radical than even a change in external behaviour: he invited people to a profound change of heart.
John refused to engage in the cult of personality. Whenever people were tempted to focus on him, he always pointed the attention away from himself, to the One who was coming after him: to Jesus, the One capable of transforming from within by the gift of the Holy Spirit. John recognized that for any real change in behavior to stand a chance of enduring, it needed to be rooted in a change in attitude, in the basic orientation of our hearts. It is this new orientation of the heart that would allow a new generation of believers to come to recognize in Jesus the anointed of God, the Messiah, the Christ, the human face of God.
Jesus comes to reveal to us that what God desires, first and foremost, is our healing: our need for forgiveness, reconciliation, new depth of life, compassion for ourselves and for others. Comfort, comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.
These words spoken by Isaiah, echoed by John, and which take flesh in Jesus – are addressed directly to us: they are words we both long and need to hear. God writes straight with the crooked lines of our lives: our anxiety and compromise, our self-importance and self-rejection, our judgment of others and ourselves. Whatever desert we happen to find ourselves in, he leads us to green pastures, where our life and our capacity to be bearers of life to others might be nurtured and might flourish: “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs to his bosom.”
God calls us by name. But that is just the beginning, not the end of the story. The same God who heals me, calls me to heal others. The God who forgives me invites me to forgive others. The God who changes my life sends me, in his name, to be an agent of transformation in the lives of others. God’s gifts are never “only for us”. Indeed, a gift is always given in order to be shared. As they say, “a burden shared is a burden halved; a joy shared is a joy doubled.”
Is this not what the “sharing” to which Advent and Christmas invite us is really all about: solidarity in sin and in grace, in need and in abundance, in our shared humanity and divine call? This sharing and solidarity must begin in our lives right here and right now. Yes, even in the midst of a pandemic. Especially in a time of pandemic! Advent is that season in which that coming of Christ which we remember from a long-distant past, that final coming of Christ which we look forward to in the future, come together in the call and challenge to encounter Christ in the here and now: in these people, relationships, circumstances, inconveniences, in these events of my daily life.
Such change does not happen overnight: St. Peter reminds us in the second reading that God is infinitely patient with us, and that we too must be patient and persevering. He reminds us that for God, “one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day.” Remember when we were wondering whether we were going to be able to gather normally for Easter? And now, Christmas is nearly upon us.
We can surely relate to this: feeling trapped by this time that sometimes weighs too heavily on us, and at the same time seems literally to be slipping through our fingers. In this season, we welcome the Eternal One, who is not trapped by time but is rather its author. He came into our time, our world, our lives to reveal the depth, the inner purpose, the ultimate destiny to which we are summoned. Our simple lives carry within them the seed of eternity.
So as we enter more deeply into this Advent time, let us hear the invitation of John the Baptist anew, to make a straight path for the coming of God into our lives. May we be drawn into the mystery of Christ who entered our human history, and in so doing, transformed it – and who continues to come, to all who welcome his coming.
Then, and only then, will our long-awaited “extreme makeover” begin to happen: not the redecorated house, or the perfect place setting, or the vanished wrinkles, or the new wardrobe – but the one that comes from the One to whom John the Baptist pointed:
O Wisdom, Lord and Ruler, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Rising Sun, King of the Nations, Prince of Peace, O Emmanuel: Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!