Reading from the Gospels, Advent 3: John 1.6-8, 19-28
If you’re experiencing a bit of déjà vu in reading next Sunday’s gospel lesson, it’s understandable. This passage from John circles us back around some of the textual territory that we visited in the gospel reading for Advent 2. John approaches his subject in a different fashion than does Mark, but, as in Mark, John the baptizer makes an early appearance in the gospel. Once again we hear words about making a way in the wilderness. Yet where Mark, along with Matthew and Luke, borrows those way-making words from Isaiah and editorially applies them to John the Baptist, using his authority as a narrator to make clear that the Baptist is the one of whom Isaiah was speaking, John takes an intriguing turn in his gospel.
In John the evangelist’s version of the story, the priests and Levites approach the baptizer, asking him, “Who are you?” He begins by saying who he is not: “I am not the Messiah.” They persist. “What then? Are you Elijah?” John emphasizes he is not Elijah, nor is he the anticipated prophet. They ask him again, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” In his own voice, John responds,
I am the voice of one crying out
in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’
as the prophet Isaiah said.
Where the other gospel writers linked the Isaiah passage with the story of John as an editorial comment, John the evangelist places Isaiah’s ancient words on the baptizer’s own lips. His narrative choice imbues the baptizer with a deep clarity about his role in the story of the Messiah. Though not the promised prophet for whom the people had long waited, John the Baptist’s claiming of Isaiah’s words to describe himself places him firmly in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. He knows he comes from Elizabeth and from Zechariah, but with his answer he places himself in the lineage of those for whom the wilderness, both literal and metaphorical, was their home, their place of formation as messengers of God. John’s response to his questioners is not only a way of saying who he is, but also where—and whom—he has come from.
In pondering John’s clarity about where he has come from, and how this informs his understanding of what God has formed and fashioned him to do, I’ve found myself thinking about a poem that recently circled my way. Written by Appalachian poet George Ella Lyon, “Where I’m From” offers a litany of the places and people, the artifacts and experiences that hold the poet’s roots. “I am from clothespins,” she begins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
it tasted like beets.)
[Read the whole poem here.]
Lyon comments that the poem has traveled widely, circulating as a writing prompt. “People have used it at their family reunions,” she writes, “teachers have used it with kids all over the United States, in Ecuador and China; they have taken it to girls in juvenile detention, to men in prison for life, and to refugees in a camp in the Sudan. Its life beyond my notebook is a testimony to the power of poetry, of roots, and of teachers.”
In our mobile society, it’s sometimes hard to say where we’re from, hard to name the roots that hold us as more and more of us live at a distance from the places (which may have been many) and people we grew up with. And yet Lyon’s poem reminds us that roots happen in a variety of ways, sometimes but not always tied to one particular place. Our increasing physical rootlessness is perhaps itself a kind of wilderness, akin to what John the Baptist experienced—but the wilderness, as John knew, is a place to be from, too.
So on this Advent evening, inspired by the baptizer and by an Appalachian poet, I’ve been thinking about where I’m from, and what direction my roots are turning me toward.
Where I’m From
I am from orange groves
and old Florida,
from a house my parents built
in a field my grandfather gave them.
Black-eyed Susans grew there in the spring,
so thick we played hide and seek
simply by kneeling among them.
I am from a town
with more cows than people,
from Judy and from Joe,
from generations that have grown up
in one place.
I am from peanut butter and
honey sandwiches every morning,
from my grandmothers’ kitchens,
from Thanksgiving feasts in the
from Christmas Eves in the
white painted church
among the pine trees.
I am from the dictionary we kept
by the dinner table
where we ate words like food,
from hours and days in libraries,
from miles of books.
I am from the path they have made.
I am from solitude and silence,
from the monks and mystics who lived
between the choir and the cell,
from the scribes bent over their books,
from parchment and paint,
from ancient ink and from gold
that turned pages into lamps,
I am from women less quiet,
women of the shout and the stomp,
testifying wherever they could make
their voices heard.
I am from Miriam and Mary and Magdalena
and from women unknown and unnamed,
women who carried their prayers
not in books
but in their blood
and in their bones,
women who passed down the sacred stories
from body to body.
I am from them,
listening for their voices,
aching to hear,
to tell, to cry out,
to make a way for those
yet to come.
So where are you from? What are the places, the people, the experiences that formed your path? What holds your roots? How does where you’re from help you understand who you are? How does it enable you to make a way for the one who comes in this and every season?
Wherever you’re from, wherever you’re going, peace to you as you continue to find and fashion your path. Blessings.