Posts about Advent

Our Calling to be Little John the Baptists

Posted on December 18, 2023

St. John the Baptist Sees Jesus from Afar by James Tissot

During Advent, I have been reflecting on the injunction to “Prepare the way for the Lord.”  This is the life message of John the Baptist, and he does it with his whole person even unto death.  Usually I receive this admonition in Advent as one for my own heart to make ready more space for the Lord, to give the long awaited Jesus more access to my valleys and mountains so that he can make them into a straight path for his presence.  My death to self gives more breath to the risen Christ living his life in me.

This year I have been focusing on what it means to prepare the way of the Lord for others.  It doesn’t mean that I am the savior;  I cannot rescue, deliver, or redeem.  But I can, through my presence, actions, and words make someone more open to meeting the Lord and receiving him so that if he followed right after me, this person would recognize him and welcome him.  This has heightened my awareness of every interaction--with the Muslim checker in the grocery store to my tone with a seller when working out a dispute on Facebook Marketplace, from my morning exchanges with my teenage son to someone to whom I must tell the truth, which I would rather avoid.  This means being aware of Christ’s presence in every conversation, something I aspire to but have not attained.  “What would Jesus want me to communicate to this person in front of me who is beloved to him?” This does not mean I cannot have conflict; it simply informs the undertow of the conflict.  Is our conversation pushing someone away from the possibility of meeting the Lord or pulling them toward curiosity by a warm infection of kindness, consideration, and bracing love? Of course, some will choose not to welcome the Lord on a path he prepared so well.  But that is not our responsibility.

In Brazil recently, my husband and I were seated at the little café where we would have our daily afternoon coffee.  Incidentally, the café was named for a coin that a landowner minted using a certain weight of gold that could redeem a slave.  With one “Pio” a slave could be set free.  This landowner used his wealth to make a path of freedom for slaves.  

The café opens to the outside and the ocean air mingles with the tourists enjoying a reprieve from the pressure of their faraway lives in contrast to the locals carrying their own secret sorrows while setting tables for tourists. 

I love the way this café allows wandering peddlars and beggars to meander around the tables, and I was cheered by the softness in the customers to respond kindly and buy them a sandwich or some juice.  But it was hard to be interrupted often when we were trying to relax, and I was fighting callousness. After all, the day before I had bought a woman a sandwich and a drink. 

A woman came to our table whose spine was so twisted that the top of it and the end were at a 40 degree angle from each other;  every step was clearly painful.  I wasn’t interested in her garish refrigerator magnets.  And her obvious pain was a reminder that I cannot get away from sorrow.  I had come to this place to escape heartache.  At first, I just motioned that we were not interested.  But then the Holy Spirit whispered in my heart to prepare the way.  

I called her back, and I gazed into her eyes.  What was her life like? I asked her her name…Vilma.  I asked her about her back.  She said she had fallen as a child and become crippled.  I asked who she lived with.  She said her mother and father had died, that she lived with her grandmother and her daughter.  As she shared about her life, she would reach up and wipe her face with her sleeve.  Her basket of wares were of little interest now.  We had entered into eternal territory together.  I wanted so badly to pray for immediate healing for her and see that spine straighten, but God has not yet worked such miracles through me, though I pray for them. 

I could say nothing except, “You have suffered profoundly.  You must be in so much pain.”  And we just held each other's eyes in silence for a long time, both of us crying.  All I felt I could do was to be with her in that moment, to see her, hopefully to make a path to the one who loved her with his life and could make of her wilderness a watered garden.  My husband, who even without the language can communicate the passion of the Lord and a prophetic word, joined me in praying for her with an infusion of hope.  God’s interest in her far surpassed our casual encounter.  He was committed to her for life and had nudged us to let her know that.

That moment has stayed with me this Advent.  Almost everyday I think of Vilma and pray for her.  I do not have words to describe what happened to me in that encounter.  It was truly a moment inhabited by the Holy Spirit, and all I had to do was notice, be curious, be available.  And I almost missed it.

C.S. Lewis says so eloquently in his essay, The Weight of Glory,” that all day long our interactions are leading each person toward glory or away from it. This would be too great a burden to bear if we could not walk in the Spirit.

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.”

Lord, help us to prepare the way so that we are a lantern lighting the way to Jesus, or a hand helping someone who is stumbling on the way or a warning for someone to turn around and not walk toward destruction because the call of love is so compelling and a narrow way.  May we be aware of and humbly bear the great capacity we have to prepare the way for the Lord so that somehow the love of Jesus can sneak in, even to the hardest of hearts, simply because they felt a whisper of the breath of God or saw a flicker of light or smelled a fragrance of a heavenly garden with a gate open.

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Nativity Among the Ruins

Posted on December 23, 2021

I have been blessed this year by the book, The Mystery of Holy Night, a compilation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermons on the Incarnation interspersed with art on the subject.  The opening page quotes a letter he wrote from prison on the first Sunday in Advent, 1943, where he was imprisoned for his stand against the Nazis.  Here is what he wrote to his parents:

I don’t have to tell you how greatly I long for freedom, and for all of you.  But for decades you gave us such incomparably beautiful Christmases that my grateful memory of them is strong enough to outshine even this rather dark one.  It is times like these that show what it really means to have a past and an inner legacy independent of the change of times and conditions. The awareness of being borne up by a spiritual tradition that lasts for decades gives one a strong sense of security in the face of all transitory distress…

As we light our Advent candles, prepare gifts for our families and friends, attend services, live in the music of the season, read poetry and stories, decorate our homes, prepare foods worthy of a feast, and gather with those we love, we cannot underestimate the power of the memories being instilled in all of us, especially in children, that we will be able to savor in difficult times.  All of these actions of celebration are worthy of commemorating the Incarnation--the interruption of history with the miracle of God.

Bonhoeffer, however, goes on to say more about Christmases that cannot be celebrated in such festive light:

From the Christian point of view, spending Christmas in a prison doesn’t pose any special problem.  Most likely, a more meaningful and authentic Christmas is celebrated here by many people than in places where only the name of the feast remains.  Misery, pain, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt have an altogether different meaning in God’s eyes than in the judgment of men.  God turns toward the very places from which humans tend to turn away.  Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him at the inn:  A prisoner can understand all this better than other people.  It’s truly good news for him; in believing it, he knows he has been made a part of the Christian community that breaks down all spatial and temporal frontiers, and the walls of prison lose their meaning. 

Christmas, whether celebrated in full style, or remembered from a place of sorrow and constraint, unites us all at the stable.  

I remember years ago when my brother was dying, we had, in my memory, a profoundly difficult Christmas.  I tried to rearrange our small house so that all the relatives that joined us could sit at one big table.  We set up the table in the living room, and it made the space awkward for gathering before and after the meal.  We had moved a comfortable living room chair into the kitchen so that my brother could be part of the preparatory activity.  

I remember the jar that held his special vegetable juice (that he depended on for nutrition) falling out of the fridge and shattering onto the floor-- and the following frustration of losing one person who returned to his house to make more juice, two to clean up the mess, and even fewer to get the feast on the table.  

An aunt and cousin were upstairs desperately trying to finish wrapping presents, and the rush was on because my brother only had the energy for either dessert or presents, which brought about a lot of negotiating dialogue.  Children had expectations.  Parents had expectations.  And we were all painfully aware of wanting to celebrate with my brother for what was most likely his last Christmas.  Somehow, in the middle of it all, one of my sons crouched patiently under the table to insert a whoopie cushion under the seat of a highly proper New England relative.  The ensuing explosive result brought gales of laughter from those of us who have adjusted to an inevitable coarseness living with a houseful of boys, but uncomfortable silence from the southern relatives.  For me, it was a welcome stress valve release created by the new generation being mischievously unaware of the gravity of the day.

A few years later I was flipping through our Christmas Memory book and saw my brother’s handwriting.  Evidently, he had picked up that book on his last Christmas in our flurry of stress and fretting and written: “We came to a delicious late afternoon celebration…In the midst of a daily battle I’m facing with cancer, the Lord made this one of the most special times we’ve ever had. Thank you so much, everyone, for a blessed Christmas Day with all the memories.  With all our love!”

My brother had lived in the real Christmas that day while we were trying so hard to make a Christmas memory.  He was grateful to be alive, aware of Christ in the midst of a failing body. I wish I could have been more able to be present to Jesus that day and the wonder of His coming to us in the midst of sorrow and hurry.  Because of his suffering, my brother had the opportunity to apprehend the true meaning of Christmas. And he welcomed the opportunity.

The painting at the beginning of this post is the one Bonhoeffer reflects on: “The Nativity” by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538).  Against all tradition, Altdorfer painted a Nativity among the ruins.…Christ comes in media res, in the middle of things, right where we are.  The circumstances around Jesus’ birth were chaotic-- a Roman occupation, Mary away from family and all that is familiar, a sense of transience and uncertainty, finding accommodations with relatives she did not know at a vulnerable time.  And right there, among the animals and strangers, in troubled times, the Light of the World, the Savior of the World, labors into the world.

Whether your Christmas will be celebrated this year in the ruins of loss and disappointment or in a glorious festive cozy home, all of us have reasons to be surprised by joy.  Christ came for such a time as this, and he is quite comfortable among the ruins.  It may be that as we draw near to him even in a prison of sorts, like Bonhoeffer or my brother, the circumstances actually make space for the comfort of “God with us,” and the deep consolation of those who fellowship with us.

With God dwells joy, and down from God it comes, seizing mind, soul, and body; and where this joy has grasped a human being, it spreads, it carries away, it bursts through closed doors.”

        -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

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