My Catholic News Service column for the Second Sunday of Advent. (The image is me offering an expanded version of this message as a reflection at Mass during the Advent retreat I led this past weekend at the Dominican Retreat & Conference Center in Niskayuna, NY.).
The image of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel stands in stark contrast to the secular holiday images that bombard us from every side during this season.
Camel hair for clothes and locusts for food are a far cry from a red velvet suit and a plate of cookies, and, yet, here we are, trying to navigate between two very different worlds with two very different messages. Ho, ho, ho, you brood of vipers!
This Sunday’s readings can be a tough sell. We listen, we hear, but it’s hard not to feel just a little bit disappointed to be handed threshing floors and unquenchable fires as we decorate our Jesse trees and open the doors on our Advent calendars.
And while John’s dire warnings may seem out of place in a season of hopeful waiting, if we dive deeper into the readings, we find glimmers of a hope that will outlast anything we might find under the tree come Christmas morning.
For starters we can soothe our jagged souls by spending a little time with St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, today’s second reading, to offset some of the harshness John is serving out.
In Paul we find endurance and encouragement, harmony and hope. That’s more like it, we want to shout, but the hard truth is that ours is not a faith of either/or but one of both/and. We do not get the harmony and hope without the repentance and refinement through spiritual fire.
We probably should not expect anything less from a God who was willing to break into our world to save us by becoming one of us.
“The Advent mystery in our own lives is the beginning of the end of all, in us, that is not yet Christ,” wrote famed Trappist monk Thomas Merton in his essay “Advent: Hope or Delusion?”
“It is the beginning of the end of unreality. And that is surely a cause of joy! But unfortunately we cling to our unreality, we prefer the part to the whole, we continue to be fragments, we do not want to be ‘one man in Christ.’”
That sounds suspiciously like an updated version of the message John the Baptist brings us today.
This mystery we call Advent, this path through darkness toward light, is not only about preparing the way of the Lord but preparing ourselves for the Lord’s coming — on Christmas, yes, but also at the end of time.
Advent is a season that dwells in both realities. We prepare to celebrate a birth even as we prepare for the end of the world as we know it.
But what does that mean for those of us who are living in the world, cooking dinners (not of the locust variety), buying gifts for family and friends, decorating our house and sipping eggnog?
Can we enjoy those moments of lighthearted joy even as we accept John’s message of repentance? Yes, because Jesus showed us how.
Throughout Scripture we see Jesus attend parties, share meals with friends and find joy in the innocence of children. Ours is not a joyless faith, just the opposite. It is a faith that finds joy even amid suffering, which is no easy thing.
This season of Advent and the Scripture readings that guide our way day by day provide the operating instructions for the difficult task of letting go of our unreality and clinging to the only reality that matters: Jesus Christ.
The rest of the world wants you to blast Mariah Carey around the clock, bake cookies till you drop and spend so much you’ll need six months to dig yourself out of debt. When you think about it, that doesn’t sound all that joyful, does it?
Advent, on the other hand, asks you to slow down, pause, breathe, wait, be. Can’t you feel your shoulders relax as you hear that? If you want a recipe for real joy, skip the world’s version and find what’s hiding in the challenging words of Scripture.
“Our task is to seek and find Christ in our world as it is, not as it might be,” wrote Merton. “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.
“Our Advent is a celebration of this hope. What is uncertain is not the ‘coming’ of Christ but our own reception of Him, our own response to Him, our own readiness and capacity to ‘go forth to meet him.’”
In other words: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
Turns out John the Baptist is right on time, not only in this season but in this period of history. The world tries to tangle us up in heartbreak and division, but John reminds us in the bluntest of terms that this world holds nothing for us.
We belong to the One who is and was and is to come.