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Friday, December 6, 2013

Advent 102: Preparing

One of the common themes of Catholic preaching and online Catholic kvetching this time of year is the rush to Christmas, the replacement of reflective Advent waiting and patience. We like to call each other on the carpet for putting up Christmas lights too early, going shopping on Black Friday, listening to Christmas music in November. Don't lie! I do it too! I used to be worse, I confess, and could kvetch with the best of them about having parish Christmas parties in Advent, or concerts that included Christmas music. I still resist all that, but I have a different compass nowadays, and think it all through using different parameters. Some of it is just a matter of taste, you know, like how much is too much. But I think if we think through the proclamation and symbols of Advent, we might at least take a more sympathetic and compassionate stance toward the revelry of the season.

So what does it mean to prepare for Christmas? In the scriptures for the 2nd Sunday of Advent in the RCL, the phrase "prepare the way of the Lord" appears in the gospel, where Matthew uses Isaiah to allude to the appearance of John the Baptizer in the Judean wilderness. It's clear from the outset that Matthew is playing fast and loose with Isaiah, whom he adapts in a way that would not be approved by Vox Clara, or any of the other Catholic minions enforcing Liturgiam Authenticam. Isaiah says:
A voice proclaims:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD!
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! (Is. 40:3, RNAB)
Matthew says:
It was of him (John) that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths. (Mt. 3:3, RNAB)
In Isaiah, see, God is leading people out of exile, and taking the shortest way home. Mountains and valleys are in the way. The herald announces that the procession is coming, and the wilderness, which never disobeyed God in the first place, is told to reshape itself for the procession as any good subjects of a king would when the king was passing through town. Clean up the place, fix the potholes, smooth out the bumps. But it's God who is doing the work here: God created the emancipation, God leads the procession through the desert, and God will lower the mountains and raise the valleys on behalf of the people.

But Matthew, using the passage to talk about John, sees it differently. In Matthew, the voice is in the wilderness (like John's), rather than the wilderness being the site of the divine preparation. Matthew's command to prepare is not explicitly to the mountains and valleys to get the way prepared, it's John's command to his listeners, that the Lord's way should be prepared. But what way?

For Isaiah, "prepare in the desert" meant getting out of God's way as God was doing saving, life-giving work of resettling people in freedom, leveling mountains, raising valleys, making the rough places into plains. The sense of Isaiah 40:3 is that God is coming, God will do the leveling of hills and valleys to make the route out of exile smooth for Israel. Matthew, with pre-Pelagian ardor, suggests that John the Baptizer wants the highways smoothed by the repenters, by the works they do (which are spelled out in Luke's account, while Matthew uses apocalyptic language, a great "clean-up" in God's barn, and there's going to be fire involved.) And remember that Jesus is an adult, and appears on John's riparian doorstep to be baptized. These are not pre-Bethlehem events. Jesus is already in the crowd, and listening to John's philippic.

Preparing, according to John, is repentance. Why? Because the empire of God is "at hand." It is nearby, "close as tomorrow," it is, in fact, already here, and the ground we're standing on is about to give way for the divine bulldozers. But those bulldozers are working on our behalf. They're making a smooth path for the march to freedom, equality, debt relief, and just, lasting peace. John is talking, as Jesus will do after John's arrest, to citizens of the Roman empire whose access to divine favor is doled out by the collaborating temple powers, the scribes and pharisees. He doesn't want them to think about or reflect on or pray about what's coming. He wants them to get out of the way.
When (John) saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism,
he said to them,
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. (Mt. 3:7-8) (RNAB)
Other Advent scriptural images of waiting in the coming weeks are that of a farmer waiting for the seed to germinate and grow, and of the pregnant Mary waiting for the birth of a child. Farmers and mothers both know that that kind of waiting is not inactive, most of the time. Farming and mothering, even before birth, are active states. Exhausting, in fact. There's a lot going on. John's exhortation to "repent" is not a call to reflect. He's saying, in so many words, "How is the Roman empire working out for you? Experienced the freedom of God in that temple economy and worship lately? Maybe it's time to turn the other way."

Not so much about preparing for a feast, but preparing for a new world. How do we prepare for a new world? We do things differently. We need to ask the same question in our churches: how is black Friday working out for you? How was shopping on Thanksgiving? How is business as usual in your parish working for you? Experience lately the "freedom of God's children" you were promised in your baptism? Well, God damn it! Turn the other way. How's that for Advent urgency?

I started out by mentioning the way we sometimes seem to be worried about engaging with the trappings of Christmas and its commerce too early, as though Advent, by preparing for Christmas, was really about preparing for a day. But it never was that. Preparing for Christmas is about preparing for the empire of God. It's about turning around, changing behaviors, looking for the gleam of freedom in the lengthening darkness. It is about traveling together out of the bondage into which we've allowed ourselves and others to be submitted by money, power, status, nation, race, and creed. It's about remembering which God it is whom we are vowed to serve, and remembering the gospel way we're called to serve that God in peace, compassion, and service.

So I'm thinking, maybe light in the darkness helps. The frigid, darkened streets where I live actually lift my heart when I need to drive to or from the parish these nights. There are my comrades there, and their lights make the darkness into a sacrament of divine presence. Music about a newborn baby who is a threat to kings helps me remember who I am, too. But to my way of thinking, the thing that I mustn't overlook is that the darkness, both inside and outside of the palaces and temples, is real. Christmas isn't pretending, it's a choice. Just like the baptismal promises, just like Easter. There's no way to the light except through the darkness. No way to Nazareth except through Egypt. No way to Easter that doesn't pass through Calvary. But the feasts are there to remind us that the light is in the darkness, not after it. Life springs right in the midst of the experience of death, not after it. And the path God is clearing, well, it has already been cleared. It's a different empire, a different emperor. It's right here. But we have to turn around to see it.

We need the preparation time to remember all that. We can get distracted by shopping, Santa, carols, creches, bonnets, bunnies, and Easter egg hunts on Palm Sunday. We need the time to think about where we are (a world of darkness) and what we're getting into (a confrontation with people who want it that way). Advent isn't for brooding over the power of evil, but it is for a realistic assessment of the mess we've made here, the people we've entrapped in poverty and despair, the lies we tell ourselves by overconsumption. I mean, how did spending all that money last year at Christmas work out for you? Are we any better off now than then? But preparing for Christmas by putting up lights and listening to songs about a peasant child who was a threat to the kingdoms of earth might just be a sacramental touchpoint, a place from which we can turn toward that other empire in this world that Jesus saw, that empowered his ministry, and which he left us to fully realize.

Today is the feast of St. Nicholas of Myra, who through the transmogrifications of history and geography and latitude became the Santa Claus who often enough is trying to lead us into malls and boutiques instead of into the empire of service, self-emptying love, and justice. It's good to remember that Santa Claus got to be "Santa" (a saint) by grace-enabled works of faith and charity, and that before the red suit, reindeer, and GPS-enable sleigh there was a man who got up every day and burned himself out on behalf of people in need, gave real food and real money to real people who didn't have enough. We need that Santa back, the Santa who "produced good fruits" as evidence of his commitment to the empire of God. Maybe with silver bells ringing in our winter wonderlands, we can start seeing the real Santa Claus in all those living statues on street corners and shopping malls.

We are preparing for the cross. We are preparing for a God who doesn't deem godliness a trait worth grasping, for an empire where "whoever wishes to be greatest must serve the rest." We're preparing good news for the poor, freedom, hope, and peace. If lights, music, and celebrations help move us in that direction, they're the work of Advent. But the word repent won't go away, it's at the head of the Advent proclamation. God thinks there's something broken here, and comes among us to show us how to fix it. In order to do that, we have to change direction. The resistance will be mighty. Let us engage the story: light in the darkness, a vulnerable child who is king, and songs of God's gospel that proclaim the strange truth that the glory of this God is nothing more or less than peace on earth among the people whom he adores.