John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of him 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.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. When he 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. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Navigating the New Reality
by David Morrison
One of the central figures of the Advent liturgy is John the Baptist, or John the Forerunner. The gospels set up the context that the Jewish people are completely under the oppressive powers of Rome with no hope for any conventional liberation. Then, suddenly, “The word of the Lord comes to John in the desert.” It’s when everything around us (including ourselves) is reduced to a desert that the Lord initiates new things.
John’s message was: ‘Repent-The time has come!’ The word, “repent” in its essence means “metanoeo,” which refers to a spiritual turnaround, but also means to be open to something new or unheard of. Thomas Cahill writes, “This ‘new’ word is not just good news, it is THE best news ever.” John embodies the contemplative life in that his birth comes in the silence of his father, Zachariah (remember, the angel struck him speechless until after his birth). John emerges with an identity as “the last of the prophets,” or the “forerunner.” He then begins to interiorize the obscurity of the desert by letting go of this identity: He moves from being “John,” to just a “voice in the wilderness.” Our spiritual journey takes us into the same experience as we move from an old reality into ever renewed ones. Thomas Keating describes how disconcerting this process can be:
“Whenever we accept the invitation to let go of our present level of relating to Christ for a new one, it may feel scary A comfortable relationship with Christ–our own little world of reading, prayer, devotions, or ministry–is good. But just as the life process moves on day by day, so the grace of Christ relentlessly calls us beyond our limitations and fears into new worlds.”
John proclaimed the coming of a new reality which was already breaking in—the ‘Realm of Heaven.’ In John’s gospel, Jesus referred to it as “eternal life.” Paul called it ‘the New Creation,’ while John the Revelator saw it as the ‘New Earth.’ It requires a change of paradigm, or expectation to see the reality of God’s love breaking into the world today. Repentance is not an end in and of itself for the sake of moral excellence (which only leads to a pious superiority). Rather, repentance is the removal of distractions that keep us from perceiving the presence of God within us and all around us. It is a preparation to see God in a whole new light and in the new reality. We need this change because we tend to make God into a blank screen onto which we project our American dreams and cultural prejudices, and even our previous legitimate experiences of truth. God calls us beyond these and into the ever-deepening values of eternity: faith, hope, and love.
Prayer while lighting the first candle each evening:
O King of all nations, Jesus Christ,
only joy of every heart,
come and save your people.