I said this at church for advent 2. The readings were here.
I bring uncomfortable words, but it is advent and John the Baptist urges me to be courageous and honest. Hopefully there are no Herods here, but in any case I attempt to find a truth greater than my own thoughts and experience. The truth (God) is also greater than the text, because the text is not God.
The first reading begins by promising us “comfort” and initially my heart sang at the thought, but then I read on.
I find no comfort in the gendered relation of power that is revealed, between a guilty (feminine) Jerusalem and her punishing Lord, however much in this reading he is staying his hand. This smacks of a cycle of abuse.
Reading on there is ecological disaster, the earth turned upside down for the sake of this “Lord”, mountains and valleys eroded. This version of “power” is all too familiar in the modern world and I find terror, not comfort if I attempt to identify God with it. The shepherd imagery at the end is tender, however we know that in reality shepherds exploit and eat their sheep who they tend to view as “stupid”. Similarly at times in political debate, people who naively accept what they are told are referred to as “Sheeple”.
I love my tradition and I want to find God in it but I am wary of how I will view myself, others or the world if I accept this reading too casually. I am sure wiser people than me might rehabilitate it somehow, I would rather sit with John the Baptist in camel hair, foraging for survival and not accept the precarious comforts of living in the shadow of abusive power- even when it claims kinship with God.
But we know God, we know her from the entire scriptures not just this one passage and we know her from the saving and companioning work of Jesus, from the heart-lifting vision of radical justice of Mary in the Magnificat, from the desperate call for repentance of John the Baptist, from the well-meaning, impulsive bumblings of the apostle Peter and from our own lives and meaningful connections.
In the second reading, Peter (if this is in fact he) is uncharacteristically humble, admitting that he does not have all the answers. We are urged to hope in God’s desire for universal salvation- whatever that will finally mean and however that will finally look. We can’t control the conditions around us, we can neither hurry nor delay the grace of God but what we can do is make ourselves ready, make our own conditions ideal for God’s presence.
There is a form of spiritual self-care that I think is being suggested here, which if we think of advent as a time of pregnancy, a time of bringing into being radical possibilities for the whole liturgical year starting with a birth at Christmas, then by nurturing ourselves and our inner life we are also nurturing the Christ-possibilities within. In that sense we can leave behind anything that defines “repentance” as responses to punishment or guilt, and see it instead as a call to a better, more hopeful, joy-filled life- what has sometimes been called “right relationship”. I frankly did not see a good example of right relationship in this first reading.
Across all three readings, there is a clear call to admit our sin and then a suggestion that baptism will wash away some sort of spots or dirt marks. Even then if sin is what makes us or our ways of being dusty and dirty then it originates from outside of ourselves from abusive patterns in the world. Thus to turn away from sin, to wash ourselves is self-care and associated with rest and even the pleasure of hot water and fragrant soap– repentance does not have to be about self-blame we can deeply understand and forgive our own imperfections (as a way of helping us be more tolerant and forgiving toward others). Instead we can turn toward God for the love of the divine “otherness” of God and for the joy of our potential to sink into and become one with that otherness as a deep affirmation of our own truest being.
John reminds us that when we act as “church” we enact sacraments that are shadows of the real sacrament of the real Christ. The priest, the prophet, the enacter of the mystery is no more worthy than the one who repents and accepts sacrament.
Let us sit and ponder a moment
What is the camel-hair, the uncomfortable reality we need to grapple with this advent?
How do we wash ourselves, be our best and most cared for selves? What do we repent from? What do we turn ourselves toward or into?
As we do this, let us stay with the idea of being gift and having gifts that is also part of our advent reality. Let us be brave and critical in our faith as we share our thoughts with each other. Let us trust our own experience of God in love and joy.