Living History

John the Baptist, Robert Campin, 1415

In one of her early books, Annie Dillard shares how she once learned a lesson, the hard way, about the importance of waiting. She had been watching a butterfly slowly emerge from its cocoon.  The oh-so-slow process of transformation was fascinating, but, at a point, she grew impatient. She took a candle and heated the cocoon, though only slightly, in order to speed the process.  It worked. The butterfly emerged a bit more quickly, but, because the process had been unnaturally rushed, it was born with wings that were not properly formed and it was not able to fly.  In this case, impatience had her price.

Learning patience, learning to wait for the things of God, is not something that is second nature to most of us.  Is it really any wonder that Christmas begins for most, in our towns and cities, around the time the Thanksgiving leftovers are finally gone – what more transparent window into our nature than our desire to have our Lord born premature, so that we might “have the season,” have the moment, regardless of the reason?

Bernard of Clairvaux used to encourage the monks in his monasteries to wait upon God in prayer, and when they grew frustrated with the waiting, he would remind them, ““Waiting upon God is not idleness, but work which beats all other work to one unskilled in it.” – Bernard of Clairvaux.

Hope can be born, in the midst of patience; even in the midst of a pandemic.

We always have God’s promise that we will not be forgotten.  It’s the message from Isaiah carried through the centuries.  God does not forsake Israel in the Babylonian Captivity and Exile of the 6th Century BC.  At that time of suffering, at that time of tragedy and frustration, at that time of hopelessness in Israel, Isaiah writes to Israel of a homecoming, a return to blessedness, in Jerusalem; a second Exodus from captivity to freedom.

Isaiah writes, A voice cries:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;

The uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.”

And Mark is set apart from the other Gospels in that this missive does not begin with tales of a journey, a stable, shepherds, and tyrannical leaders.  This missive begins with a saying quarried from the storehouse of the prophets – from the quarry of Israel’s greats – Isaiah – ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight . . .” 

God is about to move in upon you.

The message being communicated here, “there is no way to Jesus that does not lead through the Torah and the Prophets of Israel.” {David Bartlett, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1999}

The promise holds through the ages.  God is not absent.  God does not forget.  God will move, God will act, so that his children can find the path that leads back to Him and to their homeland.

Jesus is coming, Jesus is moving, Jesus is fulfilling a long-standing and percolating work given to the Jews and instituted by the God of Sinai.

John the Baptist is out in the Wilderness, dressed like Elijah with the words of Isaiah in his mouth, as the image of the Israel of old; the Word of God is coming near when human beings are separated from their own kingdoms and enterprises that are created to serve themselves.  The invitation is to “go out,” away, from such things so that we might encounter our truest selves; so that we might engage those forces both within and without that would draw us from the love of God.  It is a kind of clearing the mechanism.

Standing there, dressed like Elijah, with the words of Isaiah in his mouth, John the Baptist is like one of those characters at colonial Williamsburg wearing the woolen wig, eating mutton, and standing in the stockinged calves of colonial American.  He is a vision in the present of a shared past.  And his appearance, his diet, his home, his words, were meant to evoke the common allegiance that his hearers would have with that past; they are caught beneath the sway of a collective memory.

And The Baptist is bowing with that collective memory, and bending his knee to the ground, so that with it he might untie the thong of the sandal of the One for whom that collective memory is waiting.

In the presence of John the Baptist, the journey of the Old Testament prophets is ending; there is a new story for Israel, for humanity, and it is a story called Good News.

Advent is a time for self-inventory; a time to look within ourselves, and ask the question, “For what am I waiting?  For whom am I waiting in this life?”

The repentance of Advent is a time for us to make a personal inventory – not unlike the inventory that John the Baptist invites in the countryside outside the precincts of the political and religious machinery of ancient Israel.

Metanoia – a change of thinking, a change of direction, a change in the sense of urgency with which we are living our daily lives.

Most of us have a genius for distraction, because we might think that waiting for God is too difficult, or that waiting for God is a kind of idleness.  We have an opportunity during these days of the premature celebration, wandering through the lightshow and noise of a season that is mostly of our own manufacture, to sit with our questions, to sit with our hurts and our hopes, to sit with the promises of God. 

In the midst of this virus and quarantine we have an opportunity to sit with our questions, and the promises of God that lay on the other side of those questions.


A few years ago, Forbes magazine ran an issue on its seventy-fifth anniversary,  “Why We Feel so Bad When We Have It so Good.” It contained articles by some of the media luminaries of our time: Peggy Noonan, writer for Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Dan Rather; the brilliant novelist John Updike.

The Nobel laureate Saul Bellow, wrote of the disillusionment that comes from our cultural fascination with affluence; the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, warned of the weary discontent haunting America, a nation surprised to discover that “economic and material goods are no compensation for social and moral ills.”

{Kavanagh SJ}

Evidently money and the things that money can buy for us do not bring us closer to meaning and joy in our lives.  For many of us, your Dean included, it is usually that old problem of mistaking feeling good and looking good for being good and doing good.  The message of Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Jesus is that we only stand to benefit and grow wiser in the ways of God if we make the choice to close this gap.  Our salvation lay in turning this corner in our lives.

Perhaps it is time that we move deeply into the promises of God, and seek the meaning and the joy that might discovered there.

Advent is a season in which to offer to God the particular burden that always seems be diminishing our lives with God.  The burden, the anxiety, the fear that draws us away from the path, away from the awareness, the heaven that Jesus is promising; we bring that burden to God.  The burden so obvious to us that we could name it within the space of a moment.

Bring that burden to God in Advent, so that God might exchange it for the gift that comes from heaven.

What gift, wrapped in flesh, might God bring to you this year?  What gift may be waiting for us in the Wilderness with John the Baptist this year?

Because the message from heaven, even in the midst of all of the noise and lightshow of a Christmas season born pre-mature, of a Christmas orgy of sugar, paper, and twinkling lights, is to be patient . . . I am coming for you; I am coming for you, and will give you the wings to fly home.  The message from heaven is the same during time of pestilence and violence – I am coming for you; I am coming for you, and will give you wings to fly home to be with me.

The heavens, the voice of God, declares, I will make the way when there seems to be no way.  I bring the gift that you cannot give to yourself.  These are the days to prepare, and the days for building our mangers.

There is in repentance, with God, this beautiful mystery– that we may fly fastest home on a broken wing.

William L. Sullivan {Unitarian minister and writer 1872-1935}

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