Dear Friends in Christ,
John the Baptist looms large in the Advent Gospel readings for obvious reasons. He is the herald for Jesus. He prepares the way for the one whose sandals John is not worthy to untie. He announces judgment, “You brood of vipers!”. And he announces the Good News, “…but the one who is more powerful than I is coming.” In the world of the dramatic arts, we might say, John is “setting the stage for the main act.” Except that the Gospel readings in Advent are not inviting us to watch a dramatic story unfold as though we are the audience, safe and comfy in our seats.
John the Baptist knows his followers. He knows their struggles, hungers, suffering, failings. He knows what they yearn for: an entirely different life and world… one where compassion reigns over power; where healing prevails over brokenness; where hearts listen and divisions melt away.
This year, I wonder about the themes of anticipation, expectation, and preparation in Advent. They don’t have the same resonance they had before the spring of 2020 – when our lives changed. Expectation and anticipation, in these times, have ended up in disappointment and discouragement. We are still wearing masks. We are still urging everyone to get vaccinated. We are still concerned about traveling and gathering in large numbers. How do the themes of expectation and anticipation in 2021 pair with the Gospel readings of Advent?
Hope and anticipation are part of our human condition. God made us a people who look out and forward – we develop plans by forecasting as best we can. Once our plans are outlined, we prepare for their fulfillment, and we often engage in this work with the kind of light and life that is unique to hope and anticipation. Hope can often work like a rope that pulls us forward even when we cannot see clearly what lies ahead.
But my reflections this Advent have really plunged into the depths of this anticipation and expectation we are preaching and teaching and living. The power of John the Baptist’s ministry was not a package of campaign promises; the power of his ministry was his ability to recognize and speak to the people’s yearning for new life. It is this yearning that speaks to us in Advent 2021. We are called to more than a comfortable reflection on what we anticipate in Jesus’ birth. We are called to yearn for a new life – something radically different than this broken world.
When we yearn for something or someone, we are experiencing a form of anticipation and expectation that is fully embodied. It is difficult to talk about yearning without describing a physical sensation.
John the Baptist must have surely sensed the people’s yearnings for a new way to live – their deep need for healing and desire for a new future drew them to John the Baptist. His response was profound in its simplicity: come stand in this river, let this water cleanse your body as it also ritually cleanses you of your sins. He could see and sense how the people yearned for a better way of living together. He helped focus their yearning on the best way to prepare for the journey ahead of them: to confess, to reconcile, to be released from old patterns in order to live a new life together.
The Gospel call of Advent 2021 is to embrace our yearning – the embodied experience of deep hopefulness and expectation. Unlike passive expectant waiting, yearning fills our days and nights with an imagined world we can almost feel, smell, taste. It is the very real belief that what we live today is not the final word – that the final Word is yet to come. Our yearnings for that fulfillment ought to stir us up this Advent. Let the stirrings be those of the Holy Spirit as we peer into the night sky in faithful wondering.
“Yearning, one of the most poignant shared human experiences, percolates in the indeterminate void between the beginning of desire and the end of it (satiation or disappointment). Time spent fantasizing about — and sweetly agonizing over — the object of one’s desire heightens that desire.”– Heidi Julavits