Well, if it’s the second Sunday of Advent, it must be John the Baptist! Familiarity doesn’t always result in contempt, but it certainly can produce a kind of predictability and indifference.
I’m not always sure what to make of John. He features somewhat prominently throughout the Gospels, often viewed as one of the last great prophets prior to the coming of the messiah. Legends developed in the early church about John’s familial relationship with Jesus, with Mary sharing her joy with Cousin Elizabeth who was pregnant with John at the time. Yet there is scant evidence that Jesus and John had very much to do with one another as they both matured. We don’t have any record of them hanging out together at family parties. In fact, John comes on the scene almost as a competitor, with many wondering if Jesus and John were equivalent in their mission.
What we know of John is that he was someone who lived on the edge (of society), and he seemed to have no difficulty calling out those who he believed were in need of repentance. He was probably one of many itinerate prophets who roamed the countryside, preaching a call to radical conversion and undoubtedly making a number of folks very uncomfortable. I think of John sometimes when I encounter the street preacher who hangs out at the corner of Market and 15th St. almost every day. I watch the passers-by ignoring him or giving him a wide birth. I wonder if John had the same impact on many, in spite of what we are told in the story of his rather brisk baptism business. But however John saw his ministry, in Matthew’s text he is primarily the one who announces the presence of a greater prophet, one who we would soon encounter in Jesus.
I don’t think repentance is a concept that fits easily within the experience of most of us. Perhaps we’ve had an experience of a powerful “come to Jesus” moment which has changed the direction of our lives, but more likely, we’ve felt a kind of continuity in our spiritual lives. Nothing too dramatic. If you were baptized as an infant or even as someone older it was a rather gentle and joyful event. Not like plunging into a cold river and feeling for a moment that you might be drowning. Not that will get your attention! And that will wake you up! And that strikes me as an important dimension of repentance: It’s a shock to the system but also an awakening to a self which we had not fully realized before. The notion that baptism merely “washes away our sins” seems a bit anemic to me, because it represents an opening to something about our true selves which had perhaps become buried or otherwise occluded by the struggle of survival in the world.
It is easy enough to focus on the wretchedness of the world and to point fingers at whoever we would nominate for a current-day brood of vipers. It may even be easy to focus on our own supposed wretchedness. In most of my encounters with people, I find that relatively few are out of touch with a need for change and repentance. On the contrary, most people I know struggle with excessive guilt, injured self esteem and a fear of what might come next. Most of us don’t do a very good job of loving ourselves, though we and may do a better job of loving others, or at least behaving ourselves for the sake of those around us. But if we think of repentance as more than just throwing off the nasty bits of our personality and returning home to an original goodness, the picture becomes more intriguing.
While we all may have a variety of inner spirits that bedevil us, Christian tradition has long formulated the ability to identify perhaps one “besetting sin” which seems to organize much of our thinking and energy. For example, the person dominated by anger may not easily show true feelings, but can be characteristically judgmental and critical. A person dominated by lust may not only carry on in the most obvious manner, but may have a variety of appetites which go to the extreme, and tend to push others around in the process. Fear or anxiety, though not sinful in itself, can yield a tendency to doubt self and others and prevent one from opening to new possibilities. And, not to forget our good friend the sloth, the slothful or indolent person often “numbs out,” sometimes by using anything from alcohol to video games, to “go to sleep” in the face of challenges.
As powerful as these so called “vices” may be, they also offer a pathway to a conversion toward particular virtues. The idea is that these manifestations of personality are a kind of inferior mimic of a part of the essential self which has been submerged in the ordinary or extraordinary challenges of being born into the world and needing to survive. Think of them as defense mechanisms of sorts. Thus, the angry person protests against a loss of a sense of the perfection of the whole and the way things “ought to be,” seeking to restore proper order. The lustful type has forsaken an inner sense of innocence which might allow for an inner sense of fairness, non-defensiveness and balance. Anxious persons often have at their core tremendous courage which might emerge with the restoration of a greater sense of faith. And the slothful one may wake up to discover deep capacities for genuine love and a capacity to act with right determination.
Not to get lost in the weeds of the details, the point is that repentance or conversion offer an opportunity to return to a lost innocence or essence which is inherent in our created selves. It’s more of a re-discovery and recovery than starting from scratch. And this conversion is more of a daily process than an occasional great awakening, although such moments of awareness can be impactful and transforming. But shifting our attention from what is wrong with us to what is most true in us can be very powerful. My sense is that the capacity to honestly look at our shortcomings or challenges is important, but once we’ve done that, we need to move toward the question of what we can do about all of it. There is nothing which wastes more time than indulging guilt and shame, since these emotions, in their most useful manifestation, are designed to promote action, like being doused with cold water! Shame can hold us in a grip which prevents a return to our best selves.
I would like to offer a somewhat different take on John’s ministry in the desert. By stripping down to the most basic ways of living in the world—hair shirts and wild honey, etc.—John reminds us to return to a stripped-down appreciation of what it means to be human, apart from all that we layer upon ourselves to provide comfort and security. But this isn’t necessarily a call to an ascetical life, but rather an act of recognition of our holy origins and essence. And once we get past the rude awakening of how we have drifted from that essence, we can embrace the fact that salvation is very near at hand. This might awaken not fear but faith, not busy avoidance but the hope that something greater than ourselves is available if we can just relax a bit and receive it. Our sleepy denial and loss of agency might be transformed into a powerful love which unites all things. And all of this can lead to one of the greatest of virtues: gratitude. Gratitude is a much more powerful force than shame or guilt, because it empowers us to embrace the challenge of the world with a deep sense of purpose.
So repent if you must, but more importantly, relax! There is plenty going on in live which tempts us to run in fear, escape into pleasure, exhaust ourselves in well-meaning activity, or simply fall asleep spiritually. The paradox is that the injunction to wake up, as in the call of Advent, involves the act of letting go into a more relaxed receptivity to the God who draws near to us, who dwells deep within us. In doing so, we might find the God who has never been that far from us at all. Gratitude can’t be forced, but it may come upon us if we desire its grace and are open to receiving it.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.