Scripture Reading: Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. And this is what he proclaimed: “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Reflection: The Removal of Spiritual Scaffolding
One of Advent’s central figures is John the Forerunner. In the Christian narrative, he is the bridge between the Jewish prophets and Jesus, the Messiah. His message resounds through the ages to us today: to rethink our lives, to question our long-held certainties, to move out of the illusions we’ve created (often through religion and spirituality) and come home again to what’s real. Spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, study, etc. are assumed to give us the gift of humility, enabling us to see more clearly the difference between our self-esteem (God’s unconditional love for us) and our ego (over-identification with our external roles and abilities). However, it is common in the life of faith or spiritual path for the ego to hijack these practices and spiritual awakenings for self-enhancement and can actually have the opposite effect and create a spiritual and even communal false sense of superiority (see this recent study). If this ego trap gets reinforced over time, the individual and their group will take on a condescension toward others who are not as “mature” as “us.” No one is immune to this phenomenon whether it be a devoted follower to a historical faith tradition or a practitioner in the “spiritual, but not religious” persuasion. And on top of this, the “spirituality industry” is happy to keep selling “soul scaffolding” and that which was intended to be temporary becomes mistaken as permanent or even eternal.
And so God sends that Voice to cry out in the desert of our souls to give us the gift of repentance which breaks us out of our inner sense of superiority and patronizing attitude toward others. The repentance process gives us “beginner’s eyes” –a change and renewal of perspective. In the simple practice of sitting silently, it becomes possible to hear what Howard Thurman calls the “the sound of the genuine.” In a 1980 address to Spelman College, he said:
“There is something in every one of you that waits, listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself and if you cannot hear it, you will never find whatever it is for which you are searching and if you hear it and then do not follow it, it was better that you had never been born…Now if I hear the sound of the genuine in me, and if you hear the sound of the genuine in you, it is possible for me to go down in me and come up in you. So that when I look at myself through your eyes having made that pilgrimage, I see in me what you see in me and the wall that separates and divides will disappear, and we will become one because the sound of the genuine makes the same music.”
This eternal, prophetic Voice within our souls has the ability to transform the relationships in our lives: enabling them to move beyond external roles of “parent,” “friend,” “teacher,” “boss,” etc. As the scaffolding around our souls is removed, we begin to be less identified with our egoic dreams, our gifts and talents, personalities, vices or virtues, etc. and we find ourselves more and more incorporated into the Voice of Love that forever cries out in the desert of the world.
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.