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.”

Advent Anxiety

This Thanksgiving holiday, I, like many, many, many other people, flew to visit family. This Sunday, like many, many people, I sat in church, celebrating the first Sunday of Advent (Happy New Year to my fellow liturgical geek friends), and listening to part of the gospel of Matthew’s little apocalypse. Every three years, we are given this reading, this lesson, and yet every three years, this passage takes us aback, it seems. Isn’t Advent a season to pull away from the stress and anxiety produced by the constant revelation of newer and better gifts to buy for your children, grandchildren, parents, grandparents, husbands, wives, etc., etc? Aren’t we already awake enough through constant media bombardment, social or otherwise, secular or otherwise? Does this passage encourage us to ever more hyper vigilance for the Second Coming in an age that urges us to ever more uber awareness so that we can grab all that we can now, now, now, before the thief returns to the house? We can be taken or left at any moment. What awaits those taken? Those left? Who is taken; who is left?

As my outward bound flight taxied to the gate at the Charlotte airport, both a flight attendant and the captain made an announcement regarding those who had tight ¬†connection times to their next flight. Most of those having the small increment of time were seated at the very back of the plane. Could those of us who had a longer time prior to the next stage of the journey or those who had reached our destination please stay seated so those families could disembark quickly and easily. We get parked at the gate, the seatbelt light blinks off, and what happens? Nearly everyone stands up and crowds into the aisle, grabbing for the overhead compartment latches, anxious–gotta off the plane first. A few of us stay seated, waiting as the families in the back rush (a difficult task in a narrow tube) past, with that harried, disheveled look folks traveling with young ones often have. We were thanked, both by those fellow passengers and by the captain.

How easy and how addictive that anxiety is! That zero-sum-driven angst that almost compels us to act impulsively on the “if I’m not first, I’ll miss something” fear; the “if I’m not first, I’m last” fear. As if being last is necessarily bad. I must admit to that temptation while waiting in the terminal–I arrived early both for the outward, visitation-bound travel and for the journey home; had time to buy refreshments, Dramamine, and a crossword puzzle book; found seats near the appropriate gate; and sat, trying to settle. Pulled out my pen and began a crossword, feeling relaxed, sipping my Coke. Looking up, watching the people going up and down the terminal. Fidgeting in my chair. What time is it? Oooh, the information screen behind the gate desk shows 20 minutes until boarding begins. I know the time. Relax again, puzzle over and answer a few more clues. Look up again, more folks gathering–lots of carry-ons. Great. Sigh. Remind myself not to get anxious; I’ve packed lightly: a duffle bag and a large purse that will both easily fit under the seat in front of me. Doesn’t matter which group I board with, even though my ticket reads “Group 2.”

More folks start to gather around the gate–why are they standing so close? Will they try to board before their group is called? I fidget more; I’ve put the crossword away and am trying to read my advance reading copy of Tad Williams’ latest fantasy novel. I give up in favor of watching to see how many people take advantage of the courtesy bag checking. I nearly get up to check mine. No, no need to be anxious–I prepared, packed lightly so I wouldn’t have to check a bag or worry about getting a bag into the overhead compartment. I’ll get on the plane, doesn’t matter if I’m first, last, or in the middle. Yes, there will be some discomfort as others get settled, get backpacks or cases stowed, before and after I do. All will be well. But the temptation to share in that anxiety–to get up and get closer to the gate, to stake my place, to glare at others who don’t line up properly, to make sure I’m with my boarding group, to be ahead of other boarding groups, to claim my space and get ready for the scary prospect of take off–is strong. I tuck my boarding pass into my book and I stand.

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?