Today’s readings on the second Sunday of Advent move us deeper into the challenges that my friend Katherine discussed last week in her first post in this Advent series – the challenges of preparing and waiting in the dark for the Light of God. How can we learn to wait when we want to do something? This is a holiday and there is much to do, she reminds us. Insightfully, Katherine realizes, we are called to be present through waiting. Yet, how does one do that? She says:
Each year, I eagerly welcome the season of Advent to contemplatively prepare for Christmas. I start out with such good intentions. This Advent I will slow down. I will not succumb to the consumerist pressures of the crazed holiday season. I will stop and notice others. I will be generous. I will simplify. I will be patient. I will not scream when someone takes the last parking spot. I will not exert my pent up anxiety and aggression on an innocent airlines employee because my flight is late or cancelled (I’m still doing penance for an ugly blow-up circa 2009). I will keep things in perspective as end-of-the-year deadlines fall all around me. I will say no to some of the holiday party invitations. I will make time to be present to God. I will. I will. I will. And then I don’t.
She ends her post calling herself and all of us to turn our attention to the true meaning of the upcoming season: “Through cultivating practices of waiting, we prepare our bodies, hearts, and minds, to experience the incarnation of Christ in our everyday lives.”
Quite helpful and wonderfully appropriate words for week one of Advent.
But unfortunately, it is week two and the darkness continues to deepen as evidenced by today’s readings. Even when we come across language of hope, it is salted with images of destruction. Isaiah speaks of new growth sprouting in his opening lines but this life comes from a stump. A subtle reminder of the darkness that still exists. The sprout is not new life from rich soil – a gentle and simple image – but instead is new life from the dead stump. Hope yes, but with the reminder that a death came first. Even Isaiah’s language about the new life that is the Wisdom of God, filled with the Lord’s spirit and that brings peace, even this language seems dangerous. Wild. The way of the world will be turned upside down. Justice for the poor and weak. The predatory animals letting go of their aggression and power to sit with their prey. These are lovely images but they also require a steep price. Poverty and weakness are the price of justice. The natural instinct to hunt and stay alive are let go in order for peace between the animals. There is so much here. So many questions arise. It is enticing. Tantalizing. Life from death. Justice for the weak. Peace even among natural instinctual foes like lion and ox, cows and bears, snakes and children. But a pattern emerges. The letting go of our power – our will. The first reading and the psalm speaks nothing of what we are called to do. The refrain “I will do something…” of week one that Katherine so eloquently pledged for all of us believers, begins to ring hollow. There is nothing for us to do.
This is further confirmed in Paul’s letter where the only action we are truly called to is to be of one mind and will. We are to do nothing but have the same intention. Have our minds drawn to the same object – as the original Greek suggests. We find out what object draws us in today’s gospel. There our fears are confirmed. John the Baptist – one who has lived in the desert wilderness ever since leaving his mother and father – proclaims all have sinned and he asks us to receive forgiveness in the form of ritual washing. John the Baptist – the one with an ax chopping at the very root of useless trees – calls out those Pharisees who do holy deeds and follow the laws and commands, and challenges them to produce actions that equal or demonstrate their repentance, their change of mind. This is an impossible task since we saw above that “doing” was not part of the plan.
And John ends reminding us where our intention should truly be – where our minds should be united – in the dark, turning to the one who is Wisdom, Spirit and Light and who baptizes with fire.
What we now learn, a week deeper into this season, is this is not a season of us willing anything. This is a season of grace and revelation and it is much more complicated than we first thought. And we cannot and should not tame it.
As the writer Frederick Buechner says in Whistling in the Dark:
Christmas itself is by grace. It could never have survived our own blindness and depredations otherwise. It could never have happened otherwise. Perhaps it is the very wildness and strangeness of the grace that has led us to try to tame it. We have tried to make it habitable. We have roofed it and furnished it. We have reduced it to an occasion we feel at home with, at best a touching and beautiful occasion, at worst a trite and cloying one. But if the Christmas event in itself is indeed—as a matter of cold, hard fact—all its cracked up to be, then even at best our efforts are misleading. The Word became flesh. Ultimate Mystery born with a skull you could crush one-handed. Incarnation. It is not tame. It is not beautiful. It is uninhabitable terror. It is unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light. Agonized laboring led to it, vast upheavals of intergalactic space, time split apart, a wrenching and tearing of the very sinews of reality itself. You can only cover your eyes and shudder before it, before this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God… who for us and for our salvation,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, “came down from heaven.” Came down. Only then do we dare uncover our eyes and see what we can see. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms. It is the bitterness of death he takes at her breast.
If we are to prepare for that Christmas of grace, it must begin here in Advent. Deeper into the darkness we plunge but with renewed hope. We are told that Wisdom is born in the dark and is offered as gift when we are drawn from “I will do something” to “Let it be done as the Lord wills.”
May this intent, unite us as we are drawn to that “unthinkable darkness riven with unbearable light.”