Advent 4: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’

St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome
St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome

According to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer lectionary, today’s Gospel reading is John 1:19-28. Out of mercy, here it is in the ESVUK (rather than BCP):

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’, as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

Another great passage involving St John the Baptist comes in John 3:30, when it is reported to the Forerunner that Jesus’ disciples are baptising more than he; his response: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’

The lives and teachings of God’s holy ones (‘saints’) serve as lessons, especially when the holy ones are prophets or apostles. Here, the last prophet of the Messiah (a prophet who, as St Augustine observes, was able not only to predict the Messiah but point at him with his own finger) provides us with an attitude that we, too, should adopt, not just in this Advent Season but all the time.

It is, admittedly, a difficult attitude to keep. ‘He must increase’ — oh, how we wish to increase! We want to get it our way, at work, at study, in social engagements with friends, in dealing with family, even in determining the meals for the week or entertainment at evening. We wish to increase, to choose exactly which courses we teach, to divest ourselves of administrative duties, to read only the books that are interesting, to get a big paycheque, to gain renown in our own field of work.

But he — He — must increase.

And when we consider His ethical teachings, as in the Sermon on the Mount, He (and thus His increase) is found in the good and progress of others. He is found in sharing the burdens of others. He is not found in getting my way. Indeed, getting my way is likely to get in His way.

And, like St John the Forerunner, we should point the way to the One ‘the strap of whose sandal [we are] not worthy to untie’. As I posted here in an Advent not long ago, ‘Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord’. Christ is still in the midst of us risen and ascended and reigning, the Second Person of the Trinity.

Jesus Christ came to seek and save the lost. John the Baptist points the Pharisees to Him.

Whom are we pointing to Him today?

(A worthy question, and I am myself unsure of my own answer. Nonetheless, a question more worthy than culture wars and fighting the war for ‘Christmas’.)

Advent 2, Sarum: More stirring up!

St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome
St John the Baptist, Santa Pressede, Rome (9th-c)

The Collect for Advent 2 according the Use of Sarum, like that for Advent 1 and the Sunday Next Before Advent (as discussed a week ago), is also a ‘Stir up’ collect:

Stir up, O Lord, our hearts to prepare the way of Thy Only Begotten: that by His coming we may be counted worthy to serve Thee with purified hearts. Who livest …

And, like a week ago, there is emphasis on God counting us worthy. I won’t repeat my mullings on that count here. Instead, two other thoughts.

First, in contemporary Christianity, Advent 2 is the week of St John the Baptist, as I happily proclaimed on Sunday. In the Revised Common Lectionary, we read from Luke 3, with the Baptist proclaiming, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord!’ In the Roman lectionary, they read from Matthew 11, where Jesus asks the crowd what they went to see when they went to John the Baptist — a reed shaken in the wind?

As it turns out, neither of these passages is the one in the Sarum Missal — instead, we find there Jesus’ apocalyptic proclamations of Luke 21.

Second, I like the emphasis on ‘purified hearts’. Advent was originally a solemn time of preparation, similar to Lent, if not quite as hard-core. Indeed, the Orthodox think of it as Lent (whereas what we call ‘Lent’ they call ‘Great Lent’). This union of purification and preparation is why both seasons traditionally have the same liturgical colour.

As St Paul says in Romans, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Yet God calls us, broken though we are, to serve Him. Let us strive to do so with purified hearts, let us beseech the Lord to purify us.

Weaving Jesus into your spare time

Christ
Christ, Basilica of Santa Prassede, Rome. 9th-c

Here are some other thoughts about what can be worked into the day to help us focus on Jesus at work at home at play with the kids mowing the lawn eating a juicy hamburger:

Mix quality Christian books into your fun reading. At this moment, I’m not advocating City of God for every reader (although, if that’s your thing…). More like Narnia. Or Lewis’ Space Trilogy. Maybe Stephen R Lawhead for fantasy fans.

There are readable Christian books out there for readers of non-fiction, of course. Like Mere Christianity. Or Knowing God by JI Packer. Or get wild and read The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assisi. Maybe read a book of saints’ lives, like Early Christian Lives, translated by Carolinne M White? Besides Milton (ohmygosh read Paradise Lost now!), read Scott Cairns or the lyrics of Charles Wesley or Gerard Manley Hopkins or whomever.

Maybe you’re not a reader. I don’t know how such people exist, but they seem to manage. In that case, find other ways to mix Jesus into your daily activities.

Every once in a while, good Christian films seem to come out. Watch them instead of something less edifying, perhaps? Go back and re-watch ones where you’re not sure about the orthodoxy of the input in your spare time, like Jesus Christ Superstar. Why not watch that? Or Brother Sun, Sister Moon, about Saint Francis of Assisi. If you like documentaries, there’s Lord, Save Us from Your Followers and Hellbound – whether you agree with the filmmakers’ perspectives, simply thinking about these issues should help us weave Christ into our lives and focus on him more.

If you’re an art-lover, you don’t even have to try to bring Jesus in. Just be more conscious in your focus, since most western art from the Early Middle Ages to some point after the Renaissance is Christian. Jesus is there. In fact, since He is Himself beautiful in a cosmic way, he is waiting to be thanked and delighted in every time you enjoy a work of art, whether it’s of waterlilies or saints or Queen Elizabeth I.

We live in an age of recorded music. Put Jesus on the stereo – Tallis, Striggio, Palestrina, Mozart, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner all wrote liturgical music and musical settings for Scripture; Handel’s oratorios are simply Baroque settings of the Bible in English. As well, the world abounds in CDs of hymns.

I grew up on a steady diet of Contemporary Christian Music. I admit that not all of it is the world’s greatest music, but I would recommend John Michael Talbot and Rich Mullins to about anyone, and still enjoying listening to new and classic Newsboys (it’s catchy) as well as good ol’ Audio Adrenaline and dc Talk. Those of you who scorn such music, please don’t judge me! Filling our ears with the truths of Christ and Scripture can help turn our hearts and minds to Him, helping us focus on Him. It’s just a matter of which track to play in iTunes or which CD to pop into the stereo.

I’m not saying to stop reading or watching or viewing or listening to the art produced by the rest of the world in our spare time. There are good theological, aesthetic, and missiological reasons to keep engaging with pagan sculptors and atheist novelists. I am not going to suddenly stop reading Isaac Asimov as part of my attempt to get more Jesus. Nor will I give up Star Trek and the Beatles. But to mix the Christian things into our downtime and our atmosphere, this is a Good Thing. It will bring Jesus more fully into our senses and into our lives.

Remember, Brother Lawrence was a lay Carmelite whose job took him to the scullery as well as across France on a vessel carrying wine. He was able to stay focussed on Christ the whole time. Frank Laubach was a missionary and literacy promoter who also trained himself to think on Christ. You can do it in whatever situation you are in and not neglect the children, the job, the boss, the spouse, the dishes, the food, the living room, the taxes.

The Kingdom of the Heavens is all around us — we don’t need to do too much that is special to start focussing on its King.