Reading from the Gospels, Advent 2, Year A: Matthew 3.1-12
Driving home from the Thanksgiving holiday, this gospel passage on my mind, I spent most of my time thinking about roads. I thought of roads I have traveled, the ones already laid down for me: pathways made of concrete, of asphalt, of dirt, of stone. Pathways made of traditions, of the habits of communities, of the patterns of institutions. I thought of roads I have made where, as a minister-artist-writer, there were none: ways I have made through imagination, through dreaming, through effort and intention. Roads made of words, paint, paper; roads fashioned of longing and of prayer.
I thought of what it takes to make a way, how it is that we create a passage from one place to another within the landscape of the world or of our own inner terrain. How we must discern the materials to use, and the tools; how crucial to learn to navigate, to reckon, to read the lay of the land. How we sometimes find a path as much by stumbling as by skill. How we may have to tear up a road, make it again in a different direction.
But I think the Advent road is perhaps not like this. That it is not one that we can fashion from our striving and our skill. That when John the Baptist comes over that wilderness horizon, smelling of camel’s hair, his lips dripping with honey and with fire, he is pointing toward a way that we can make only by what we give up, what we shed, what we let go of.
Looking and sounding so like the prophets who preceded him, John the Baptist is a man drenched in the desert. Although we know little about his life prior to now, the gospel writers viewed him as the one of whom Isaiah wrote, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” John has been schooling himself in divestment, shedding himself of everything that would obstruct the path he has been called to prepare.
As the Baptist strides into the Advent landscape, he reminds us that there is much that connects this season with the season of Lent, with its images of wilderness and its invitation to let go of what hinders us from God. John’s presence, so early in the Advent lectionary, calls us to see that beneath the twinkle lights and trimmings that permeate these pre-Christmas days, there is a terrain more spare and elemental: a landscape in which we learn to turn away from what distracts us so that we can welcome the one for whom we are waiting. This turning is at the heart of John’s message to his hearers: “Repent,” he calls out, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
John’s fiery words, especially those he addresses to the Pharisees and Sadducees, can overwhelm with their sheer force and disturbing forthrightness. Yet there is something that we—that I—need to hear within the fierceness of John’s message. It is difficult to make a way for the one who comes if I am not turned in the right direction. It is hard to perceive the kingdom of heaven if there are obstructions in my path—if I have not, to borrow one of John’s images, sorted out the chaff, to make a space for the one who will enter to do his own clearing away.
Although the Advent path leads us through the desert, deprivation is neither the focus nor the final word of the wilderness. As the honey-eating John knew, the desert offers its own delights. What the wilderness gives us is a path that helps us perceive where our true treasure lies. And does not merely give us a path: empties us enough so that a path is made within us. Through us. Of us. A road for the holy to enter the world. A way for the Christ who comes.
What’s in your way these days? If you were to imagine your life as a path, a road, what would it look like right now? Is there anything cluttering your way? Is there something you need to let go of in order to prepare the way for the Christ who enters the world in this and every season?
Blessings to you in these Advent days. May you find delights even in the desert spaces of this season.
[For a previous reflection on this text, visit Door 9: Making Way.]
P.S. My husband and I are hosting a party this week to celebrate the publication of my new book, In the Sanctuary of Women. If you’re in the Orlando vicinity—or are in need of a Florida getaway in December—please join us! The celebration will be this Friday, December 3, at 8 PM at First United Methodist Church of Winter Park. Visit Sanctuary Celebration for more info.