Advent: The Wilderness in a Very Small Place

seasonsExcerpt and reflection from Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Explorations in Liturgical Direct Action

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way
of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be
made low; the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5)

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the One who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:2-6)

By tradition and history of the church, John the Baptist is associated with Advent. At the turn of the church year, the end and the beginning, he stands, one foot in each, to announce the coming of the Lord. John is the image of Advent par excellence: pre-eminent personage, spokesperson, figure, and voice. He is the very personification of the season, as seen in these two passages.

The words from Second Isaiah are good news of repentance and return, first commended to a people captive and captivated by Babylon. John, in turn, is captured by the word. There he finds his identity and vocation. Surely he studied this text long and hard, praying from it, and being thereby comforted and provoked. Here is a passage he lives with and so lives in. John finds himself in the word. He fills it with flesh, gives it body and voice, and so becomes the very incarnation of the text.

Who knows? John may have cut his teeth on Isaiah 40, tutored in a desert community with a rigorous manual of discipline like the eschatological purists of Qumran. Luke 1:80 hints that John was raised in the wilderness.

In any event, these words suggest to him a geography of faith. And John, it seems, takes his scripture quite literally; he makes for the desert and sets up spiritual shop.

Now in the tradition and history of Israel, the wilderness is the time of preparation, the place of testing and repentance. It is the time to travel light, stripped of excess baggage, vulnerable in emptiness. It is the place of powerlessness where we are fully and perpetually at the mercy of God.

Public poverty is part of this package. Not as pretense or gimmick, but as a discipline that flows in and out of the wilderness geography. John’s notoriety of diet and dress are part of the proclamation. His lifestyle is a sign. How bitterly ironic it is that the season over which he presides should be so attacked, distorted, and subverted by the principalities of commerce. With a violent twist, they render it the high feast of material consumerism. Their hype and excess would never wash with him. His sign will never suit their festivities, except as a scandal and judgment. And as an ax to their bloody roots.

John’s lifestyle choice is not a privatized and pious act, but a public and evangelical one. His priestly blood runs prophetic. He’s not dropping out for the sake of “number one,” or convening a community of isolation that can feel good about itself. No abstract purity of conscience here. When John sets up his pulpit, and initiates his paraliturgical practice, he is inviting others to the scene of radical transformation.

Which is to say we should be clear about the religious and political geography as well. John isn’t running for high priest of the prestigious downtown temple, though Lord knows he could have reached more people. His priestly birthright might have proved sufficient credentials, but his connections were never well-placed. Moreover, he is convinced that things happen “at the edge.” When he makes his own exodus, he calls people out of the temple, out of the marketplace, and out of the fallen, unholy city, out to the margin of culture and life. And by all accounts they follow in droves, signing up for the kingdom movement.

“A whole new order is about to take shape, and if you want to be part of it, you’ll have to make some radical changes in your lives.” That’s my own translation of, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” John spoke it plainly, and his life showed that he was serious. People believed him and believed. They took the dive, immersing themselves in the kingdom movement.

The baptism of John is like nothing so much as induction into a nonviolent army. Recall that eventually the church spoke of baptism as a “sacrament”–Latin for the oath of allegiance sworn to enter the Imperial army. All these preparations rankled ominous to the authorities downtown. They saw trouble on the horizon.

Josephus, the Jewish historian who chronicled this period, offers a mouthful on John the Baptist:

Now, when many others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulty by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.

To my mind such a portrait is not at odds with the various gospels. Herod’s fear of the Baptist, even after John’s death, is well-attested. That John should boldly rebuke Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, “and for all the other evil things that Herod had done” (Luke 3:19), is simply part and parcel of the prophet’s calling. Telling the truth, even to the face of the authorities, simply goes with the territory. In the gospel version of events, the truth itself, even more than the crowds who gather to hear it, is threatening to the powers.

Now the arrest of John the Baptist appears in the gospels as a decisive event for Jesus’ ministry and his sense of the times. He had gone out to hear John, had been baptized in what by all accounts was an overwhelming personal and, in some descriptions, public experience. From there he heads straight for the wilderness. He is driven, as it is put, into forty days of intense fasting and combat with the powers up close and within. (That, of course, is meat for another season.) He returns, however, to find that the “powers without” have been busy at the same time. He’s greeted with news: John is in jail.

Certain scholars treat this arrest as a convenient literary maneuver, diminishing John abruptly to clear the way for Jesus’ ministry. But it doesn’t read like that. It is more like a clap on the cheek. A sign of the times that shakes you alert. Jesus must surely look around, count costs, weigh words, even sense already his own fate. Herod will mistake him for John the Baptist raised (Matthew 14:2) and will indeed plot the death of Jesus (Luke 13:31-33).

Soon enough Jesus will be on trial before Herod. He would do well to be prudent. Instead, he takes John’s arrest as a starting signal for his own ministry. On Herod’s Galilean turf, he begins preaching (you guessed it) word for word the Baptist’s line: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

John hears of all this, as prisoners do, in piecemeal reports. Does he not also pace off the dimensions of his cell and brood, powerless and impatient?

What I propose is that we read our scripture as John read his. Let us imagine prison as proper, even definitive, Advent geography. From there let us pray with him for the coming of the Lord.

Late in 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, imprisoned for his faithful resistance to the Nazi war machine, wrote to a friend:

Life in a prison cell reminds me a great deal of advent–one waits and hopes and potters about, but in the end what we do is of little consequence, for the door is shut and can only be opened from the outside.

There is an awful sense of powerlessness that may beset a person in jail. There is also, of course, a certain systematic intent to that. But even prisoners who land there firm in faith and for the sake of conscience are regularly shaken down. Stripped of possessions and the props of selfidentity, you are vulnerable to dreadful emptiness. An absurd vertigo. You may forget where and why you began. Reasons seem small and gratuitous. Futility looms large as the last word.

Prison, to beg from a poet, is the wilderness in a very small space. Simple endurance and fidelity are tested. The demons creep about. You learn to trust God alone. And that is why so many have discovered it to be a literal scene of transformation.

Another Nazi prisoner, Alfred Delp, wrote a well-known series of Advent meditations from his prison cell. They begin:

Advent is a time for rousing. Human beings are shaken to the very depths, so that they may wake up to the truth of themselves. The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender….A shattering awakening; that is the necessary preliminary. Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken.[2]

One thinks of Jesus’ apocalyptic advice to the disciples, which the church hears as Advent comfort: When everything seems to be crashing down around you, “look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).

Father Delp, a Jesuit priest, was charged with treason. He had, in fact, been part of a group who, in the midst of the war, was discussing what a new social order might look like when Nazism collapsed. These imaginings were a refusal of the collective delusion, and they constituted “defeatism”–a crime worthy of the definitive solution: imprisonment and death.

Outwardly things could not have been worse. The only human gesture Delp reports was a jailer kind enough to leave his shackles loose enough to slip one hand free. With cuffs dangling he writes:

The gospel for the fourth Sunday in Advent evokes history. It refers to the mighty who determine the structure of the small room in which the Light of the World will come into being, bringing salvation. In order to recognize that a moment of historical crisis is implied here, we must clothe these names with the memory of the part they played in history. From the imperial throne to the holy of holies the outlook was hopeless….Hopeless–that is the iron with which history often seeks to fetter healing hands, breaking the hearts of the enlightened few and reducing them to trembling hesitancy or cheap silence or tired resignation.[3]

History closes in like a prison cell. We pace it off in our hearts. John’s situation comes to mind. His prospects are hardly optimistic. No thirty-day misdemeanor or six-month rap–his sentence is indefinite. Vaguely terminal. John has been announcing a future; that is his crime. In recompense now his own future is taken from him by force. He’ll not walk out the door. Never again to breathe desert air. Never to wash again in the Jordan. Like Bonhoeffer and Delp, his exit will be by execution–up against the wall.

Perhaps worse, John is cut off, or again so it seems, from Jesus. The wall is between. John cannot see his face. At hand is the arrival for which he’s been praying and yearning and preparing, but all he can see are four walls up close. Still we have John’s witness in the form of a question, a contraband note kited out between the bars and carried by his disciples like an intercession to Jesus: “Are you the One who is to come?”

This is no vain anxiety about his effectiveness as an evangelist. John is not scrambling for self vindication: “Was I right? Was it worth it? Have I preached it into being?” This is not desperation. He discloses no doubt about the steadfast promises of God.

John is not even asking, “When?” He presses his tenses together, and they explode all conventional notions of time. The mingling of present and yet-to-come is quintessential Advent. But he’s not asking, “When?”

If anything the question is closer to Paul’s on the Damascus Road: “Who are you?” He inquires after the person and identity of Christ. Simply put, the question is a form of faith. And John has uttered it in the closed situation of darkness and despair. The question itself is a sign of hope.

John is blessed with a reply that is really a vision. Imagine! They tell him: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. The bare walls say it is too much to believe. John can’t see it. Will he trust it on secondhand testimony?

My wager is that he leaps in recognition, as from in the womb. There is joy here. It may be the joy of prisoners: carefully parcelled out like contraband resources stashed and rationed, shared among cell mates. Or it may be the joy, described by Alfred Delp, “when one is curiously uplifted by a sense of inner exaltation and comfort. Outwardly nothing is changed ….yet one can face it undismayed. One is content to leave everything in God’s hands.”

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Paul writes this to the Philippians (4:4) in what has become a ringing admonition of Advent. They would seem easy words were they not also written from a prison cell. Such encouragements can be trusted. They are tested in true Advent geography–the Word in a very small room.

Sure we wait. And to prisoners the waiting seems forever. But in the meantime, redeem the time: Rejoice. In the end the wall does not avail.

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