A time of clearing out the self so that Christ can be welcomed in

Liz Stuart, 13 December 2020

Isaiah 61: 1–4, 8–11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16–24; John 1: 6–8, 19–28

I once sat and listened to a colleague tell me how wonderful he was for what felt like hours, and then eventually he drew breath and said, ‘Well, that’s enough about me … what do you think about me?’ I expect we all know or have known somebody a bit like that. And perhaps we’re a bit like that ourselves sometimes. But I don’t think John the Baptist was like that.

I wonder what led John into the wilderness. Some medieval mystics believed that his parents fled there to escape the slaughter of the children that Herod initiated – the same persecution that caused Jesus and his family to flee to Egypt. And they thought that when his parents died, he was adopted by a desert hermit. More recently, scholars have speculated that John may have been part of the Essene Community, an enclosed, dualistic, apocalyptic community of the desert with an emphasis on washing and purity, who looked for the coming of a Messiah.

If John had once been associated with that Essene Community, by the time we meet him he had obviously left it. He offered baptism to all; the Essenes saw themselves as the only pure and true people of God. They kept themselves enclosed; he lived in the desert – the desert, that paradoxical place in the Israelite consciousness, a place of barren emptiness that yet teemed with demons, and where God could be met. The desert was also a place where God revealed his identity, and in the process of wrestling with God and with the demons, people somehow found their own true identity. Think of Moses, think of the whole people of Israel, think of Jesus.

We don’t know how John came to be in the desert, but what it taught him about himself is revealed in our gospel reading today. He is a ‘not’ person. He is not the light; he came to testify to the light. He is not the Messiah. He is not Elijah. He is not the prophet (another term for the Messiah according to the book of Deuteronomy). He is not worthy to untie the sandal of Jesus. Even the positive statements he makes point away from himself. He comes to testify to the light, the true light which enlightens everyone, who was coming into the world. He describes himself using the words of the prophet Isaiah as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, but what does he cry? ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’ His existence is defined not by himself but by another. He exists only to point to that other, to prepare others for his coming.

John is a ‘not’ person. His existence is defined not by himself but by another. He exists only to point to that other.

Some would say that is not an existence at all. It certainly, in the words of the poet Kelly Chripczuk, ‘ruined him for a life of conformity’. I love that phrase. ‘Ruined him for a life of conformity.’ And you can imagine what contemporary therapists might have said about that. What did those years in the desert do to John, what did they teach him? Perhaps that ‘I’ and ‘me’ are not robust enough concepts to bear us when all else is stripped away. Did he fall through his ego, battered by the desert wind into God? Did he lose his mind to God, lose his sight to God, lose his voice to God, so that he could sense when God was approaching and knew God when he saw him?

Advent used to be a time of fasting and penance like Lent. Indeed, for some time it was known as St Martin’s Lent, because the fasting began on his feast day of 11 November. Advent was meant to be a desert experience, a time of contemplation, a time of clearing out the self so that Christ can be welcomed in. Perhaps in this most extraordinary of years we could recover something of that contemplative aspect of Advent and go to join the Baptist in the wilderness, away from everyone and everything, including ourselves, for a while, even for a few minutes every day. Perhaps we could go into the desert, where the poet John Shea says:

In the emptiness of John’s desert
you will find yourself waiting,
like a bowl that waits for wine,
like a flute that waits for breath,
like a sentinel that waits for the dawn.
You are a highway ready for traffic,
and here comes One
who seems also to have been waiting,
waiting for the construction to be complete.
The more is arriving,
and there is only one question,
‘Are you the One Who Is to Come?’

The answer, Yes, fills the space left by I and Me and fills it with true being, being in Christ, and when that happens we are ruined for a life of conformity.