Advent Wilderness

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“To put it another way: if you, as the owner of the house, know that the thief is coming but not the hour that the thief is to arrive, do you sit between now and that time, anxious, hyper vigilant, rigid in an armchair perhaps, smack dab in front of the door, hands tight on a shotgun, afraid to leave the chair? Are you then awake? How else might you prepare?” –from Advent Anxiety

The second Sunday of Advent and still Matthew’s gospel serves as a provocateur, pulling me up, wresting the shotgun out of my numb fingers, saying “armchairs are notoriously difficult to turn around in; how then can you repent?” Pulling me through zig-zagging narrow corridors in a rush, past vitriolic tweets and social media frenzies, past scores of emails per day from retailers reveling in their revealing of ever lower discounts and ever more perfect gifts. Until finally, I’m pushed–

out, crying aloud in wonder at the stark light of the sun and the radiant heat of the desert. At first, I mistake the absence of noise as total silence, but while marveling at the needed quietude, random buzzes (not the large drone of a hive), creep into my awareness. Stones, too, in some pattern I cannot discern, laid down long ago by flood and cataclysm, make themselves known to me. For a surreal second, I ponder whether stones can buzz, but then, camouflaged against the hard-packed sand, locusts move. Not enough for a plague, but plenty if you’re hungry. Watch out, I murmur softly, the prophet, the baptizer, might be about.

Of course, that’s exactly when the gospel nudges me forward. There’s a man, a ways from me; it’s hard to estimate distance in the desert. Is that what camel hair looks like? Hesitation on my part, only because I don’t want to disturb the stones. There’s no path, though the way is certainly straight. There’s no choice for me, really, and so I step forward.

When I reach him, he’s sitting, cross-legged at the edge of a shallow arroyo, a stream gurgling through it. “Child of Abraham,” he greets me, patting the ground next to him. We sit in silence for a bit; me, studying him surreptitiously and expectant of a prophetic rant about vipers; he, turning a stone over in his hands. The locusts sing. Finally, I ask, “Am I the wheat or the chaff, John?”

“Why is it always an ‘either/or’ question?” He looks at me, and I can’t help but notice the little smudge of honey in his beard. “When you ask it that way, you begin to ‘other,’ even yourself.” He shows me the stone in his hand–it’s vaguely heart-shaped. He tosses it into the flowing water. “It’s really difficult to baptize stone hearts–open yours and let the chaff therein float away.”

John reaches down and slips off my flip flops. Rising, unsure, I step into the stream, the cool water rushing over my dusty feet. I pivot back toward him. “Will you help me to open my heart?” I whisper.

The baptizer smiles. “Ah, that’s a better question.” I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Turn around,” John says, “the one who comes with the Holy Spirit and fire is here for just that reason.”

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