Questions From The Wilderness

Christianity has a long tradition where followers of Jesus Christ have been imprisoned for their faith. Father Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest, was condemned as a traitor for his opposition to Hitler, and wrote a meditation on Advent from his prison cell shortly before he was hanged in 1945.[1] When contemplating John the Baptist, or “The One Who Cries in the Wilderness,” Fr. Delp wrote this, “Woe to an age when the voices of those who cry in the wilderness have fallen silent, outshouted by in the intoxication of progress, or growing smothered and fainter for fear and cowardice.”[2] Here was a man lamenting the fact that faith in Jesus Christ was rapidly becoming a private matter reserved only for pious individuals. This safe sentiment sterilizes, leaving the once faithful now impotent unable to mobilize for the cause of Christ.

April 16, 1963, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. writes a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” It’s addressed to his fellow clergyman who were criticizing King’s actions as “unwise and untimely.”[3] Answering these criticisms, he wrote, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[4] King was not only “cognizant of the interrelatedness of communities and states,” he was also reminding his colleagues of Jesus’ own words from Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ (Matt 25:40). Put differently, how we treat one another represents how we care and treat Christ.

There are hundreds if not thousands of pages of letters of the faithful written from jail cells throughout Christianity’s history. This tradition goes back to the Bible itself where St. Paul wrote many a letter from prisons while held captive by Roman Empire. In today’s Gospel, a letter was not physically written but a message sent from one. This message was not addressed by a prophet to the household of God, but to God himself; and, surprisingly, God answered. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another,” John asked? This was a condemned man’s question as John would soon be put to death by the authorities of the day. Perhaps it was a dying man’s last request for a blessing, an anointing, or a sign of comfort. Jesus’ response to John was pastoral in this regard. Pastoral in that he quoted scripture. John knew the scriptures well, and could relate to Jesus’ quotation. Instead of answering directly, Jesus allowed John to determine for himself what the answer might be. In other words, Jesus validated John’s question and in doing so remembered his humanity in a dignified way. The Gospel then has Jesus turning to the questions of the crowd which differ in substance when compared with John’s because the crowd cannot articulate a proper question; therefore, Jesus does it for them naming possible answers to help guide the people. “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at,” Jesus asked the crowd in referencing John’s ministry? He asked this question three times, “What then did you go out to see?” “Was it to watch a reed blowing in the wind? Was it to find someone wearing soft robes? Was it a prophet?

Finding a reed blowing in the desert wind would not be surprising. Given this line of thinking we may ask ourselves, “When was the last time God surprised you?” When was the last time you came to church not knowing what was going to happen, anxiously anticipating a Word from the Lord? Maybe that Word came at coffee hour instead of in the liturgy? Does that ever happen to you? When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised by joy?

And what about finding someone wearing soft robes out in the desert heat? They don’t belong in the desert do they? “Were you expecting John the Baptist to be like all the other preachers of the day,” Jesus might have asked? In turn, we might ask ourselves, “When was the last time you were headed to church and found church along the way?” Where have you been lately expecting people to play their part, and found God acting like a holy fool for you?

Finally, Jesus asked, “Did you go out to the desert to find a prophet?” Now we’re on the right track, but the answer doesn’t end here. It’s only the beginning. You found a prophet that pointed beyond where you thought you were going. You came out to the desert and found living water. You wanted to plant yourself in some small sentiment, and ended up discovering that the expansive kingdom of God was there, and you didn’t even know it.

Like a good teacher guiding his students into deeper reflection, Jesus was guiding the crowd into the same answer that John intuited. The great irony here is that John was the one in prison while the people were free, but given the ignorance of the people they were the ones imprisoned, held behind by the barred doors of obliviousness. It’s here where Fr. Delp can be helpful again, “Woe to an age when the voices of those who cry in the wilderness have fallen silent, outshouted by in the intoxication of progress, or growing smothered and fainter for fear and cowardice.” Perhaps the prophetic voice has fallen silent because we have covered our ears and numbed our consciousnesses. What the intoxication of progress always forgets is that even if all our means and wellbeing were taken care of there still would be a great longing for God within our shared humanity. It’s here where Dr. King comes alive again, “I,” King wrote, “am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states.” Here, King is like John the Baptist from his prison cell. He recognizes and is cognizant of the Messiah. It was the people who did not share this reality. It was the very people who should know but who were blown about like chaff in the wind (Matt 3:12). And yet; what the Messiah also brings (besides himself) is his kingdom. The kingdom interrelates with heaven and earth calling all of us back to creation. The doctrine of creation reminds us all that we were made to be in relationship with God and each other. We’re not here for progress. We’re not here to be fearful. We’re not here to divide ourselves into this or that tribe. We’re here to express God’s love in the world:

Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God…
He will come and save you.”
(Isa 35:3-4)

Hope is found in the person of Jesus Christ. Faith is lived out by participating in his kingdom, and his love grounds it all. This week ask yourself what are some of the questions Jesus may be guiding you to live into? What answers have you come across that you intuit, but are also realizing that you have only scratched the surface? Are you brave enough the ask such questions, and dwell on deep answers in community, or will you keep them to yourself? Christianity has a long tradition where followers of Jesus Christ have been imprisoned for their faith. Don’t let the bars of fear and ignorance keep you from the freedom found in Christ Jesus.

[1]                Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (“The Shaking Reality of Advent,” by Alfred Delp, Plough Publishing House: Walden, 2001), p. 82.

[2]                Ibid., 92.

[3]                The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania. Accessed online on 12/13/19 https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[4]                Ibid.

What Then Should We Do?

~A meditation on Luke 3:7-18

What then should we do?” It’s this question that gets me every time I read today’s Gospel. “What then should we do?” is a deeply human question. It’s personal, hopeful, and courageous. And John the Baptist being the prophet that he is actually answers the question. He gives the people something to do. He gives them a word, and invites them to make it flesh. He instructs them to examine their lives and repent. He asks them to take responsibility for one’s actions speaking, living, and growing in truth…to even stop seeking for a moment; instead, taking the time and concentrating on what has been found. Use what you have, and what has been given you; and what the people have are God’s promises, morality, faith, and hope, and love. So what exactly were the people repenting of, and what made them forget these promises? They were repenting of their self-centeredness, their pride, and their vanity. They had forgotten the oaths they swore to uphold as soldier, citizen, and state. These oaths represented something virtuous, and virtues are truths bigger than us.

With the help of John, the people are redirected to a life of virtue and virtuous living. This redirection leads to a need to self-examine. Self-examination leads to repentance. Repentance prepares the heart to receive truth incarnate, the One even John feels unworthy before. Repentance gives us permission to pay attention. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” How can we tell who doesn’t have a coat if we’re not paying attention? “What should we do,” was asked three different times, and John did give the crowd something to do or something not to do, not for the sake of busy-ness, but for the sake of Being.

The Advent message is always John’s message to be on guard, to repent, turning to God time after time. It’s repenting, and accepting the peace of Christ before being invited to the altar. Once at the altar, one can honestly realize that what we are about to receive is something all of us are unworthy to receive, and yet we do receive it because we worship a God who is worthy, virtuous, and true. That’s what the people listening to John needed, and that’s what we need right now. A Savior, who is Christ the Lord. “He coming”, says John the Baptist. “I’ll wipe away your sins with water, but he’ll burn them in the fires of justice.” “I’m unworthy to untie the thong of his sandals, but he’s worthy, so pay attention, be alert, snap out of it, sleepers awake…he’s coming.”

Perhaps, “What then, should we do?” is a life or death question. The question gives us permission to take a look in the mirror and to be honest. It allows us to caliber and recalculate the dials, to turn the temperature up or down, braving reality as we face what is instead of what isn’t. What is real? What is truth? What is virtuous? These are the questions of Advent. These are the deep, deep mysteries we are preparing our hearts to receive. And the answer lived is even more mysterious for reality, truth, and virtue turn out not to be a philosophical statement, or a theological treatise. Reality, truth, and virtue turn out to be human; and not just any human, but the One who is most alive. Anything less is death, an ax lying at the root of the trees, or chaff being burned away. This season is a season where we exchange our unworthiness to the one who is worthy. Today is the day we wake up from fantasy to face the music. Advent reminds us to look truth in the eye and say, Yes to life; thus saying No to death. Yes to Christ and No to anything less than.

What then should we do?” but to incarnate being, to bring forth life to a life-less world, and there find joy in the midst of suffering. “What then should we do?” is not a happiness code, but a mantra of meaning – a question that acts as a divine chariot riding us out to the 7th heaven that just so happens to reside in our hearts. I speak abstractly today because what this season represents is hard to put into words. I speak theologically today in the hope that Christ coming again can come to be a truth in your own life. You know beauty when you see it. You understand truth when you experience it. You come into contact with goodness daily. What these virtues point to; however, transcends all thought and contemplation of them. They land you in the realm of the Divine, and the land of the Divine is personal. It has a name. It is conscious. It is with us. So come O come Emmanuel. Come into our world. Come into our hearts. Come into our lives. All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well; and yet, make yourself known, again.

Give us something.

Give us anything, Emmanuel.

Give us God.

The Counter-Cultural Christ

Mark 1:1-8

St. Mark’s Gospel

Today, liturgical churches around the globe begin reading St. Mark’s Gospel. This Gospel will be heard periodically throughout the entire year, and it’s a gospel I always enjoy exploring at deeper levels. Two thoughts occurred to me as I was preparing today’s blog. The first has to do with the truth claim that Jesus is Son of God. The second will explore John the Evangelizer as he prepared the way for the Son.

Jesus is the Son of God

Mark’s gospel opens, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” After this sentence, he proceeds to tell his story, but I want to pause for a moment and help us understand just how controversial this opening line would have been when it was first read, performed, or said over 2,000 years ago. Putting the title, Son of God, into the context of the ancient Roman Empire ruled by dynasties of emperors, the ancient Romans would have attributed the title to Caesar. There were certain formalities and rituals that not only held Caesar in high estate, but it was commonly held and believed that Caesar was divine – thus holding the title, the Son of God. So when Mark’s opening lines were read claiming another emperor, ruler, and king, it got people’s attention in the town square, house churches, and eventually within the court of Caesar himself represented through the historical Pontius Pilot. Right off the bat, Jesus was considered an enemy of the state, and a threat to the ruling class. When St. Mark’s gospel was written, Jesus had already ascended into heaven, but his disciples, apostles, and other followers were still around, their very lives being threatened in similar ways because they claimed Jesus was the Son of God – not Caesar. For the early church to preach against Caesar, or the State for that matter, and to claim Jesus Christ as the Son of God or Lord of Lords was to combat Roman idealism and patriotism. The Church countered this ideology in the person of Jesus Christ whose very body was maimed, mutilated, mocked, and destroyed by political, worldly powers only to be raised up by God. Mary, the Mother of God, understood this truth in her own body, and before Jesus was born she sang out, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones… he has scattered the proud in their conceit… and the rich he has sent away empty.

Jesus Christ, as Lord of Lords, chose and chooses powers that the world mocks. He does not give into the temptation of ruling as emperor, or an empire that conquers by force, but rather as a servant who reveals the power of virtue in a song. In other words, Jesus’ choices of virtues are eternal. They outlast this kingdom or that kingdom revealing (again, in his very person) what the true kingdom is like. Let’s now turn to John the Baptist.

Preparing the Way

Preparing a way for this kingdom to come near is something John the Baptist showed others how to do. He does this in two ways, through repentance, and humility. John preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He understood that part of the preparation process was making crooked roads straight, and getting one’s house in order. “Turn away from what you’re doing, and go another way – a way that is more holy awaits you”, he might have said. Furthermore, the very act of repentance that allows forgiveness to be accepted puts one in a state of humility. There’s a realization that, “my life is not all about me.” John showed this type of humility when he proclaimed, “I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” John understood it was his gift to prepare a way for Christ in the hearts of his followers, and within his own heart in order to humbly receive God’s grace found in his Son. That’s the classic Advent message right there: to clean out one’s heart, to make room, and to welcome the Son of God coming into our lives.

So whether it’s a tangible act of resistance toward the State, or a cleaning out of one’s heart, may this season of Advent be for us a holiday counter to the culture, and when necessary, counter to selfish drives, and be a crucible toward setting out on the straight and narrow again as if for the first time.