Isaiah 11:1-10 :: Romans 12:4-13 :: Matthew 3:1-12
As the years go by, I find myself more and more aware of a peculiar dissonance. Before the leftovers of our Thanksgiving Day feasts have even cooled, our culture plunges into a season of marked material excess. Commercial advertisements don the gay apparel of remixed, upbeat holiday jingles. Tinsel and lights adorn city streets and public squares. Numberless holiday sales abound, drawing us into a frenzy of stressful shopping, trailed shortly after by the accompanying waste. All attended by the familiar, portly figure of a jolly Santa Claus.
Please don’t misunderstand me; it is not my attempt here to polemicize the popular festivities of our ambient culture. (Not entirely.) There is nothing wrong with the desire to give gifts to one another, per se. There is nothing wrong with warming the dark, frigid nights of a northern December with song, festivities, fellowship, and lights, per se. These are all good things, to be sure, and doubtless God can speak some word of life to us through it all. Nevertheless, the moment our culture attaches the name of Jesus Christ to this prolonged cultural season of excess, I have to wonder if we are really being adequately prepared for the significance of Christmas. The difference of horizon between a season marked by Santa Claus and one marked (at least in part) by John the Baptist, it is safe to say, is a difference not of quality but of kind.
Advent is by contrast a full-blooded, lean, and demanding season in the life of the church. A season characterized by expectant waiting and honest self-examination. A season that seeks to prepare us for a revolution, but not just any revolution. Today and next Sunday are marked by the unmistakable cry of John the Baptist—the gaunt, desert-dwelling prophet, clad in a camel’s hair mantle and a lone leather belt.
John has fled the polite but frenetic religiosity of the city, away in particular from an unreliable religious establishment lacking any self-critical sense—that “brood of vipers,” as he calls them. “Whence such a harsh excoriation?” we might ask. Let us consider John’s aims in the desert. The Judean wilderness (the region between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea) was a place that attracted many groups and individuals searching for spiritual renewal, prophets and seekers alike. We know whom some of these people were—groups like the Essenes and the community at Qumran. What documentary evidence survives gives us a window into the concerns that drove these people into the desert. As a monastic, the imagination of the desert is a very real part of my own experience, a site of both positive renewal and of disturbing self-discovery. Yet this is a region that beckons us all—whether we enter a monastery or not—and particularly during Advent.
What is the call we hear from this wilderness?
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Repent. This is John’s injunction to any who will listen. Yet, importantly, the meaning of the Greek word Matthew uses here, metanoia, carries little (if any) of the moralizing self-flagellation with which our current collective imagination has come to identify it. A combination of the preposition meta (to change) and the verb noiein, “to think,” which comes from the word nous, or mind. Quite literally, John the Baptist is crying out for us to “change our minds.” Change your mind! For the kingdom of heaven has come near.
Have you ever noticed how hard it is to change your own mind? None of us likes to be wrong. This is especially true if our rightness or wrongness impinges on who we think we are, who we think others are, how righteous or unrighteous we think we are, or how righteous or unrighteous we think another is. To be told we might be wrong about an incidental concern is one thing; to be told we might be wrong about our moral self-inflation can be quite threatening if we have come to define ourselves by our perceived moral rectitude (that is, to be a Pharisee). For John the Baptist, this kind of self-justification simply will not bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Have you also noticed, though, that when we do indeed change our minds, it is almost as if ground has been laid—as if the effort of it was, in the full evaluation, more the work of time, space, and Another. I think this is the interpretive key to John’s cries in the desert. If John the Baptist is calling us to change our minds, we must then also consider the kind of paradoxical spaciousness his asceticism seeks to reveal to us. To change our minds will necessarily involve time and space. Perhaps this is the providential purpose of all time and space.
John’s cry is a revolutionary one to be sure, but the kind of revolution it calls for (as I alluded earlier) is unlike any other revolution. It is not a revolution characterized by self-justification, coercion, or violence. The concerns of this desert revolutionary cannot simply be taxed, legislated, imprisoned, bombed, or walled out of existence. Only a holy wilderness and a holy waiting can address these concerns. For this revolution is a person—Jesus, the son of Mary—whom we can only meet if we consent to wait in the wilderness. A holy wilderness that deprives us of any illusions we may have about ourselves, a desert of the inner life where we come to experience what feels to us like death—but we need not fear the fire of His baptism, for like the bush encountered by Moses, we will not be consumed. We will become more resplendently the people He has made us to become.
By our holy waiting we will learn to rely on God, the one who alone has the power, with our consent, actually to change our minds. For if it is God to whom we surrender the final word about ourselves, we will come to know that this thing that feels like death is actually the way out of our broken arrangement as a species—the way into Life itself.
And so we are called, not just in Advent but throughout the whole of our lives, to this revolutionary, holy waiting. Holy waiting for a revolution that has already come to us once. We wait in this season for the celebration of this revolution’s nativity in Bethlehem, and yet we also wait, right now, right here, to meet this revolution Himself under the forms of Bread and Wine. He is a revolution into which we are all invited.
God will help us do the heavy lifting; but with attentive expectation, we must first wait.
 An allusion to Zechariah 13:4
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