Sunday, May 31, 2009

12-7-2008: 2nd Advent (B)

Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11/Psalm 85/2 Peter 3:8-14/Mark 1:1-8
The writer Flannery O’Conner was once asked why she created such bizarre characters who did such grotesque things. She said that “for the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large, startling figures.”

John the Baptist seemed to have been doing a lot of shouting in his day as well, not to mention all the locusts he went around eating. He would have done well on the Sunday morning TV religion circuit, shouting loud and long about sin and repentance. His job was to remind all those nearly deaf and blind that they were looking for something, in case they had gotten lost in other pursuits; to help them recognize that divinity was not something only out there and up above, but in the things we take for granted – the ordinary and even profane things of life. Without the Baptist, would people have been ready to recognize in that wandering preacher from Galilee the Lamb of God, such extraordinary grace in so ordinary a man?

Although Advent is often described as a time of waiting --waiting to commemorate Christ’s birth, waiting for his return again at the end of time – it’s perhaps better understood as a short course in the art of recognition. Because we moderns have been rendered half deaf and dumb by technological distractions which occupy every spare moment, it seems increasingly difficult to recognize God-with-us in the ordinariness of life; the Baptist’s shouting only adds to the din of today’s noise and demand. The Prophet Elijah’s experience, on the other hand, might offer a better way.

After slaying the pagan prophets of Baal, Elijah ran away to seek God in the mountains – not unlike the pagan prophets themselves who sought to identify divinity completely with nature. That’s why Elijah’s experience is so moving in a backwards sort of way. He sought God in the powerful wind, then in the mighty earthquake, then in the blazing fire -- but all to no avail. Instead, the Bible tells us, Elijah found God in the still small voice. The literal translation from the Hebrew renders the phrase -- a slice of silence. Then, in that slice of silence, Elijah covers his eyes for he knows he is in the holy presence of God. Surprise – the upset of anticipation – divulges a secret: recognition often comes when and where we least expect.

Being silent amid the cacophony of modern life is not easy: every ring of a cell phone seems to demand our attention; every e-mail requires an immediate response. Advent invites us to be silent. (If we jumble the letters in the word silent we discover the word listen). Advent, the art of recognition, is practiced when we listen in silence. Once long ago, we Christians believe, a young girl did just – silently listened. And a still small voice pierced her being while a slice of silence became the divine word, making his home in her womb. We also believe that the rest of us, through baptism, are no different than she. I suspect recognizing that would indeed come as a surprise.

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