Fr. John Allison
December 5, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
These words from the prophet Isaiah, used by Luke to introduce the ministry of John the Baptist, are likely familiar to many of us on this second Sunday of Advent as in all three years of the lectionary we hear some version of them. Indeed, the second and third Sundays of Advent are always focused on John the Baptist and his role as the forerunner of Christ, the prophet of the Most High, as he is called in our Canticle for the day, the Song of Zechariah, warning the people to be ready, pointing us the coming salvation of God. This preparation is, of course, the theme of the season, though it’s also one of those elements of our faith tradition that is most at odds with the more secular adaptations of Christmas. Christmas decorations start popping up these days even before Thanksgiving and the rush to buy presents and plan parties turn our heads from the more austere practices and awarenesses to which our readings point us. The rough hewn voice of one crying out in the wilderness, eater of locusts and wild honey and wearer of camel hair is a far cry from the sweet baby Jesus laying in a manger and it’s in this contrast that I think we can find meaning. It’s in this contrast of John the Baptist’s prediction of God’s coming judgement, which becomes really uncomfortable in the verses that follow today’s reading and that you’ll hear next week, and the promise of peace and love that is much more palatable to most of us.
Earlier this week someone asked me, why do we hear so much doom and gloom in these weeks before Christmas? It seems as if we’re talking more about Christ’s second coming than his first, she said. Now, to be fair, part of her consternation was rooted in the fact that in the weeks leading to the end of the Church year the readings all had to do with the end times, with the final judgement and coming of God’s Kingdom on earth and some of the imagery was rather dire to say the least. It made sense at the end of the year, my friend continued, but this is Advent, a new year, a beginning. Why the continued focus on God’s judgement? Can’t we start celebrating what we already know God will do?
A fair question, for sure, but I think we need to continue to ask ourselves, are we ready? Or, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean to be ready? How do we prepare ourselves?
You see, I think the answer to that question can only grow out of dwelling in that uncomfortable place of tension between those two images I mentioned earlier: the Christ who comes at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, as we say in our Creed, and the sweet baby Jesus laying in a manager who promises peace and love.
These two images are sometimes spoken of as the two advents of Christ: his first coming and his second. In the early Church, however, there was mention of the three Advents of Christ. In this line of thinking what we commonly think of as His second coming is actually, his third coming. The person who most fully articulated this view was St. Bernard of Clairvaux and for him the coming of Christ in the birth of the baby Jesus and the coming of Christ at the end of time to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth bookend what is our more immediate experience of the Risen Christ. Bernard saw the birth of Christ as God’s promise and the coming of Christ at the end of time as the fulfillment. It’s in between those two events, however, that we live our lives and and it’s in the midst of that living that Christ comes to us more personally. For Bernard, Christ’s second coming is when he comes into our hearts. When we apprehend his presence in the stranger, in the prisoner, in the sick and lonely.
On Christmas, we will celebrate Christ’s birth as the baby Jesus, His entry into history, roughly in the fifteenth year of the Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod ruler of Galilee. That’s the first Advent of Christ, the Incarnation, and it changed everything. In it we find a promise of life and peace, a promise of restoration. It’s in that promise that we are called to open our hearts to receive him, however he might come to us, in his middle Advent. Our waiting, our preparation is the clearing of a space in our hearts where Christ can be born in us. It’s the clearing out and cleaning of the dusty stable of our hearts so that Jesus can be born in us. It’s the emptying out of all the accumulated stuff of the world that fills us so that we can make room for the Holy, for the Divine love of God to fill us. Or, as Brother Holtz says in our Advent Book we are reading together, in this past Thursday’s reflection: “. . . we have to be acquainted with the valleys in our lives—the sinful habits, say, or the oppressive memories that weigh us down. We have to know the mountains in our hearts, too—the hills of vanity, the peaks of presumption and pride. We need to recognize the twists that our stubbornness has put in our life’s road. With a little introspection,” he goes on to say, “we’ll find that there is plenty of preparing to be done in our hearts while we’re doing our other holiday preparations.”
In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul says, “I am confident of this, that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” We are completed in Christ, and it is through Christ that we are restored as creatures made in God’s image. That’s the promise God makes in the Incarnation.
Are we ready to receive his promise? Are we straightening our paths, and filling the valleys, leveling the mountains of our lives? Are we making space inside our hearts for Christ to be born? Our disciplines, our practices, these are the means by which we ready ourselves. These are the means by which we polish the mirror of our heart so that we may more perfectly reflect the image of the God who made us. That is the end toward which we all travel together as the gathered Body of Christ.
T.S. Eliot, in his cycle of poems, The Four Quartets, a book I read every year during this time, says, “What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. . . . We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” May we all, in this season of beginning, find our end and know our completion, and be ready for something completely new to be born in us. Amen.