Early in February of 2020, I went to dinner with 2 friends. Ann said, “We will probably not see each other for many months”. She had been watching the progress of a virus spreading from Asia to the eastern shores of Europe. And, she correctly imagined the impact in America. My other friend said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about”. She had heard about a virus thousands of miles away, but how could that possibly impact our lives?
A few days later, Ann left a giant box on my front door step. It was filled with bags of rice, pancake mix, peanut butter, and containers of Lysol disinfect wipes. I called her to thank her and giggled at the doomsday approach.
Four weeks later, I was mighty thankful for all of it.
In Scripture, when God is doing something new, God calls a prophet and the prophet delivers God’s plan to us.
The prophet Malachi tells us that God is sending a messenger to prepare the way before him.
God calls John from the wilderness to proclaim a baptism for the forgiveness of sin…and Luke reminds us that the calling of John is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s Prophecy: The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord.
All of these prophets are telling us that God is doing something new: God is coming. Prepare.
Yet the world was not prepared for a manger.
Advent is a time of intentional Waiting. Intuitively, we know that God is doing something new: Mary and Joseph know by the Signs of life growing within Mary. The wise men know by the Sign of a star. And we know by the Signs of the Word and the movement of the Holy Spirit in our time.
The Prophets tell us to prepare the way of the Lord….to prepare ourselves for this Divine Gift. We may not know when or how Christ is coming. But, we do know this: Christ did not enter our world to leave it, or us unchanged.
Change is complicated. I’m one of those folks who randomly moves the living room furniture just to have a different feel. But I come from people who never…ever…moved the furniture. When we cleaned house, the furniture legs were returned to carpet indentations from whence they had come.
Humans respond to change differently. In February 2020, my friend, Ann, received the news of COVID-19 and began preparing for life as if the virus was already here. My other friend was not troubled by a virus “over there”.
I read an article in Psychology Today that cited some of the reasons change is difficult. One of their observations resonated with me, “If the status quo is comfortable and feels secure, change will be more difficult”. In other words, if the house is on fire, a certain degree of change is welcome. If it isn’t, why bother?
John the Baptizer begins proclaiming the coming of the One…the One who will change the status quo. For the folks who are doing ok, whose daily sustenance is secure, whose Roman citizenship entitles them to education and a voice in government, whose role in the Temple ensures their social privilege, John’s news is not good news.
But for those on the margins… who lack privilege, security, or voice, John’s news is a long-awaited Sign of Hope.
By March of 2020, most of us knew life would be different for a long time to come. Ann had prepared to be isolated for several months. She had registered for online courses on Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ, deep dives into the theology of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen and others. She saw an opportunity to slow down and listen to the voices of Christian theologians.
The Prophets tell us to prepare the way…to make level the path. They are not talking about patching the pavement on Pearson Lane…although that would be ok. They are talking about the path within us…the path we make to the manger.
The Incarnation of Christ is a game-changer. It is a catalyst for change in our world.
If we come to the manger looking for a feeding trough and a child, we miss the extraordinary relevance of the moment. The manger is also a crucible: a place where real and lasting change occurs.
During the pandemic, St. Martin’s began a Zoom course we call Human Flourishing. At the beginning, we expected to read and discuss one book…a book that would challenge our perception of racism in America. The conversations in that class were often intense. After one particularly charged conversation, the facilitator called me and said, “Paula, I need a shower”!
But, as we neared the end of that first book, the group wanted to continue. And we did.
We read Bp Curry’s book: Love is the Way. And, still, the group wanted to continue. We listened to lectures from Biblical Scholars about what the Bible really says about human sexuality. We read Rabbi Sacks’ book: Not in God’s Name, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Speaking of Sin, we read about allyship, and finally, we read and talked about gender—discussing biology, social constructs, and theology.
As we closed our 18-month conversation last week, all of the members of that group acknowledge that we have been changed.
Encounters with Truth change us.
…And that is what awaits us in the manger: an encounter with Divine Truth. It’s what differentiates the Church from The Lion’s Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Elks Club…. Those are all good organizations with worthy missions and purpose.
But they do not have a manger.
This week, we will celebrate the life of St. Nicholas. Although we know little about him, the Church celebrates his life because of his legacy of gift-giving… Through his legend, we know something about the joy of giving and receiving material gifts.
The Church’s mission begins at the manger. It is here that God offers an extraordinary Gift to Creation…and to us. The Gift of God Incarnate, Truth, Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. These gifts are given freely to us…not to hoard…but to share them with the world.
Prepare The Way is not an invitation to pick up the TV remote. It is an invitation to welcome Christ…to invite and embrace an encounter with Truth…to risk being changed…and to be a witness of God’s Love in our World.