1st year ordinand and doctoral student Peter Heath reflects on his formational journey so far in relation to the message of St John the Baptist.
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:Luke 3:4-6
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
I started training at Westcott in September, with the story of how I got here still fresh in my mind. At the heart of that story is a tale, familiar to many, of the strange relationship between what I wanted (which, for quite some time, was definitely not to be a priest), and what I felt that God might be calling me to. It’s not a story of grudgingly or stoically coming to accept God’s will for my life as fate, but of learning to better see myself the way God sees me, of learning that God indeed has a plan for my life through which I might flourish.
In many ways, my experience at Westcott so far has been a continuation of this tale, a continuation of the process of trying to align myself with God’s life-giving plan. Through what we study, through our habits of prayer, through the questions we ask, and through our relationships with others, we seek to learn to be faithful to the one who calls us in ways that will sustain us in the contexts we find ourselves in future.
Of course, this process of discovering freedom and fullness of life in God’s will and not in my own ambitions (or expectations, fears, anxieties, or whatever it is that drives us and which we lean on for our sense of value and purpose), is not a task limited to those discerning a call to ordained ministry. It is, basically, the task of the Christian life; our discipleship is about learning to faithfully respond to the God who calls to us in love.
What does this have to do with Advent in particular?
In the Gospel reading for the second Sunday of Advent, we hear of John the Baptist fulfilling a prophecy from Isaiah, that he would prepare the way of the Lord, by making straight what is crooked, and smooth that which is rough. If our freedom and fullness of life are found in learning to receive the gifts that God gives to each of us (including our own existence), then a large part of preparing the way of the Lord is precisely about smoothing the way for Christ to live in us.
In allowing Christ to live more fully in us, our lives come to point more fully to Christ. In being who God called him to be, John the Baptist pointed the way to the God who called him. And the God who called him is the God who created the world out of love, who came in love to redeem the world, and who draws the world to share in a life of love. This is the God to whom John the Baptist bore witness, and it is to this message of love that he points. This is the self-same God who calls us, and to whose love we must, likewise, bear witness.
What does this mean for us?
Just as John the Baptist was responsible for pointing people to Christ’s first coming, we are responsible for pointing people to Christ’s coming again in glory. Making straight the way of the Lord is not just about the (slow and continuous) transformation of ourselves. It is also about the transformation of the world around us.
This is no easy task. The valleys seem very low, and the mountains terribly high. Here, we see the difference between the habit of Christian hope and an optimistic outlook. Optimism is born of trust in what the world can offer, that, in the end, all will be okay because, ultimately, the world is okay. Christian hope tells us that all shall be well, even in the midst of great darkness, not because the world is capable of being better than it is, but because Christ has dwelt among us. Christian hope tells us that preparing the way of the Lord is not, in the end, about us making the world what God intended it to be, but helping the world to stop living out of kilter with what it already is in and through the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. How are our lives expressions of this hope? How can we become more hopeful people this Advent?
However, John the Baptist is not pointing to a purely future event, but to the fulfilment of something that already is the case. Unlike the prophecy in Isaiah, John the Baptist was not declaring the future coming of the Messiah, but instead pointed people to the Messiah who was already in their midst, whose public ministry was about to begin. Likewise, our call to prepare the way of the Lord is not simply about pointing to Christ’s second coming, but to Christ’s present reality. Entering Advent with a spirit of joyful anticipation also means looking out for signs, however oblique, of God’s kingdom in our midst (and remembering that this is likely to come in unexpected places, and unexpected people). What occupies our attention at the moment? How can we learn to turn our attention more fully towards noticing where God is at work in our lives and the world around us?
As we learn to attend more fully to God’s ways in the world, so too will we learn to see what God is doing in our own lives – who we are being called to be. And, as part of learning to faithfully live out what God is calling us to be, we learn to seek God’s radiant kingdom in the people and places that are least obviously radiant. In this way, we point to the God who came, and will come, not to judge the world in anger, but, in all humility, to call it to fullness of life in love.