The Second Sunday of Advent - Year A
Before the Liturgical year gives us a babe in swaddling clothes, it gives us a peculiar loner in the wilderness. Perhaps no greater difference between the Church’s sense of time and the culture’s “holiday season” is found than here. While the culture bombards us with the promise of happiness through material gifts, the church gives us John the Baptist and his warning of a coming judgment of fire. While our culture portrays how a variety of products will produce the perfect expression of love, John insults people by calling them a “brood of vipers.” While the culture implores us to live it up at this time of the year, the Baptist demands we repent. No wonder so few want to celebrate (or maybe it is more accurate to say ‘observe’) Advent.
The text tells us John appears in the wilderness and tells us the odd (but memorable) details about what he wears (clothes made from camel hair) and eats (locus and wild honey). His is a lean lifestyle to be sure and leanness is the opposite of what many of us will be experiencing over the course of the next few weeks. What might John’s lifestyle say to us at this time of the year? How might it be an Advent call pointing the way for a joyful Christmas celebration?
If you were not around in the 1970’s the name Euell Gibbons may not ring a bell, but for those of us who were it is sure to elicit a smile or chuckle. Gibbons seemed to spend much of his life trying to figure out want he wanted to do with it. Through it all he developed a passion for foraging wild food sources. He became a best-selling author of several cookbooks that encouraged people to use natural ingredients such as rose pedals and dandelion roots in their recipes. Gibbons’ fame skyrocketed when he starred in a commercial for Grape Nuts cereal, famously asking, “Ever eat a pine tree?” “Many of its parts are edible,” he told viewers. Gibbons put eating naturally on the map while at the same time becoming the source of many parodies, often laughing at himself as good-natured humor was poked at him and his eccentric eating habits.
Euell Gibbons stood out because he was different. At a time when TV dinners were all the rage, he reminded us of our roots in eating roots off the land. While the march of progress has much to say for it, some valuable things have been pushed aside and forgotten. In a world moving steadily and happily toward processed foods, Gibbons reminded people other and older alternatives still exist.
John the Baptist was a similar figure. He did not dress like everyone else and he certainly did not eat like everyone else. Living in the wilderness, as he did, by definition is an alternative life-style. He eschewed the halls of powers and societal institutions framing much of life in his day and charted his own course. He held a deep conviction that the more immersed a person becomes in all these trappings the less able he or she will be to discern God’s presence in the world.
John called on people to repent; a word literally meaning to turn around, to do a 180 in order to return to your roots. And he initiated people into this movement through an act involving one of nature’s most basic elements: baptism by immersion in the waters of the River Jordon. When I visited the site where many hold John’s ministry unfolded, what stays with me is how cool and refreshing the water felt. The Jordon Valley is hot and dry. The only green in it grows by being connected to the water of the river. Wading into it and going under was wonderfully restorative, physically at first, but then spiritually as well.
I am sure it spoke to those John baptized and reminded them of their need to get back to basics, to return to those things that are necessary, but over time have been forgotten or ignored. The more immersed a person becomes in the trappings of this life the less able he or she will be to discern God’s presence in the world.
I like that our Advent liturgy is built on a very simple premise: God created all things to join in a harmonious song of praise. It invites us to ask several questions: What is this song and when do I join in it? When am I silent? Why do I so often sing a different song? And the Advent question: How do I get back to singing with Heaven and Nature? How to I rejoin this harmony? And finally, the Christmas Question: How will this help me to discern God’s presence in the world?
Advent invites us to shut off the cultural noise surrounding us. It is intended to be a lean time affording us the opportunity to return to what we have lost or left behind. As we do these things, it promises we are better positioned to discern God’s presence in our world and in our life. I don’t advice you to wear clothes made of camel hair nor do I counsel you to eat bugs or pine trees, but I do ask where you will begin. What will be your first step into Advent?