Reading: Mark 1:1-8 (Common English Bible)
The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:
Look, I am sending my messenger
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight.”
John was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
When I re-read this passage this week, the phrase that stood out to me was Isaiah’s “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Because that’s a big part of what Advent is about, right? Preparing for the coming of the Lord.
Like Lent, Advent is intended to be a penitential season. “Penitential,” of course, comes from the same root as “repent” and “repentance.” And “repent” in the Bible is often the English translation of metanoia–which scholars tell us means something more radical than simply feeling sorry for one’s sins. It denotes something more like a fundamental change in the direction of one’s life.
According to Mark, John was calling people to be baptized “to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” Changing our hearts and lives gets, I think, at the meaning of metanoia–and at the meaning of Advent as a time of preparation.
“Prepare the way of the Lord”–we can also read this, I think, as “Make room for the Lord.” If God is going to come into our world, there needs to be a “place” for God to be. But we tend to fill our lives and our world up with other things. Many of us, if we reflect on it, find that this is particularly–and ironically–true around the holidays. Our days are so frantically filled with shopping, parties, and school and work events that we feel we’re missing “the reason for the season.”
God wants to be in our world, and we need to “prepare the way.” But the mystery of the Incarnation is that God, in entering our world, becomes vulnerable. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Eventually, we shove God out of our world by killing him. God’s being in the world depends, in some way, on our response.
What’s the alternative? Taking both the notions of metanoia and “making room” for God as keynotes of Advent, maybe part of that “change of life and heart” is to find ways to “make a place” for God in our lives and world. And maybe we can get some help for this by looking to the one the Christian church has always upheld as the paragon of discipleship. In assenting to God’s invitation to bear the Redeemer, Mary–literally!–makes a place, or a way, for God to be in the world. As Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson has written,
To what did Mary, after all, assent, when she said to Gabriel, “Fiat mihi,” “Let it happen to me”? Of course it was her womb that with these words she offered, to be God’s space in the world. The whole history of Israel had been God’s labor to take Israel as his space in the world. And it indeed was a labor, for Israel by her own account was a resistant people: again and again the Lord’s angel announced his advent, begged indeed for space, and again and again Israel’s answer was “Let it be, but not yet.” Gabriel’s mission to Mary was, so to speak, one last try, and this time the response did not temporize. (“A Space for God,” in Mary, Mother of God, pp. 55-6)
The Bible also tells us that Mary “pondered these things in her heart.” Mary’s receptivity and responsiveness go hand-in-hand with her contemplativeness. The penitential practices of Lent and Advent–fasting, Bible reading, prayer, and almsgiving–are intended, among other things, to foster this sense of contemplation and receptiveness by “emptying” us of the things we fill our lives up with. Like Mary, we empty ourselves in order to make a space for God.
Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (from the Book of Common Prayer)
(As noted in my introductory post, the first person who comments on this post will be eligible for a free softcover copy of the Common English Bible.)