Reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent
14 December 2014
Rev. Elder Dr. Mona West
This is the testimony given by John, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.'”
John 1:19a, 23
I noticed on the social networking site ‘Tumblr’ that Advent was a trending topic. When I clicked on it there were various images and quotes from hundreds of blogs about Advent. They ranged from quirky Advent calendars and mystical poems to stick figures of reindeer and cookie recipes. None of them featured a wilderness. Yet, that is where John beckons us on this third Sunday of Advent. He is a voice of one crying out in the wilderness and what is amazing is that people follow him out there. Some of them wanted to question his identity — “Are you Elijah? The Messiah? The prophet?” Others were drawn to his message of repentance and preparation for ‘the coming.’ One could also say that Advent was a trending topic in John’s days.
Of all the sights and sounds of our current Advent season, wilderness is typically not one of them. When was the last time you saw a Christmas card with a stark image of the wilderness on its front cover? But scriptures tell us that the wilderness is important for salvation history: the Exodus of the Israelites lead through the wilderness and Jesus’ public ministry begins after a period of ‘testing’ in the wilderness. These stories teach that the desert is a place not only where God can be known more deeply but it is also a place where humans can know themselves more deeply.
I began this season of Advent quite literally in the wilderness. My spouse, Deb, and I went camping for a week in the wilderness of Big Bend, Texas (USA). I learned a few things about the desert and Advent during that week. Both cultivate an attitude of watchfulness. What might look the same day after day, year after year (how many Advent seasons have you lived through?) has beauty and depth if we do not become lulled by sameness. Every morning when I would come out of our camper and every evening before going inside for the night I was confronted with the same mountain. But if I took the time to be attentive throughout the day I noticed different things about the mountain and the landscape: the ways the shadows moved over the rocks; the varied colors of brown, gold and tan; little flowers that seemed to come out of nowhere.
For me, it’s easy to get lulled by the sameness of Advent traditions such as the hanging of the greens or the lighting of the Advent wreath, even the sameness of the story of the ‘babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manager.’ One writer has said, “Advent is not just about waiting for a baby. It’s about waiting for a whole new reality which takes hold of us by first taking our hearts and souls hostage to its justice and grace. And then, because we cannot help but live by its magnetic force, it lays its claim on the whole world through us.” (John van de Laar, Sacredise.com) Following John out into the wilderness of Advent keeps me watchful and open to the new reality he announces, which never takes root in me in quite the same way year after year.
Wilderness is also a place of exposure. In this stark landscape, not only can one be exposed to heat and lack of water, one can also be exposed to fears and anxieties. I remember several times during that week of camping feeling anxious about being in such a remote place. I would lie awake at night and think, “What if there is a fire in the camper? What if one of us has a medical emergency?” The wilderness stories of Exodus, Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, and Advent teach that God meets us in our humanity, and the only way we can truly know God, as St. Teresa of Avila would say, is when we truly know ourselves.
John the Baptist invites us into the wilderness of Advent not to experience some kind of generic holiness or abstract Christian life. He invites us into the wilderness of Advent to truly know ourselves and to understand how God’s love and grace is made manifest in the particularities of our lives.
So as we move closer and closer to that ‘holy night,’ how is Advent trending for you?