So I’m the ballet again. The Central New Jersey Ballet Theatre surely chose me to play Uncle Drosselmeyer because of my long, lean physique and obvious gracefulness. Dr. Tony Lewis, who preached my ordination and is still a strong mentor to me, once called me a ‘non-fussy Anglo-Catholic’, which was the nice way of saying that I wasn’t particularly elegant, physically, at the altar. Anyway, I was in the Nutcracker last year as well, and I had a tough time learning all the movements, the stage placement, all the stuff that dancers have to internalize. I took it seriously for the sake of the young people who were in the show, but unfortunately, four practices does not a dancer make. And so during my big dance number, as I was twirling around, I had drifted too far out of my space, and a helpful young lady behind me said “Fr. Matt, stay in your circle!” I said back to her, “I didn’t even know I had a circle!”
Stay in your circle. Stay in your lane. We’ve heard any number of iterations of that phrase lately. Stick with what you’re good at, shut up and dribble, don’t make noise.
But in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiber’i-us Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Iturae’a and Trachoni’tis, and Lysa’ni-as tetrarch of Abile’ne, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Ca’iaphas, somebody did not stay in his circle.
And so we meet John the Baptist again in Luke’s gospel – remember that the entire first chapter of Luke is about John the Baptist, which is an interesting way of starting a book that’s actually about someone else. And let’s note right away what Luke was doing in his third chapter by listing off all of these big names: Luke was setting the time in which the Baptist emerged as an adult figure, a public figure, yes, but Luke was also letting us know what the world was like at that time. None of those people, those big names, Tiberius, Herod, Philip, Lysanias, Annas, Caiaphas, none of them were nice people. This was a harsh world ruled by great, terrible men; it was a good time to stay in one’s circle.
But something happened to John the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, that set him over against all these big names – did you hear what that was? The word of God came to John. Which made John what? If you’re thinking a baptizer, you’re right, but that’s what John did. What John was, was a prophet.
Prophets have one job, really, and it’s not to predict the future. Prophets tell the truth, the truth that God gives them to tell, and the grand majority of the prophets, from Isaiah to Hosea to Jeremiah to John and the rest, had hard truths to tell. Usually it goes something like “Hey, people of God, you’ve failed. You’ve failed to give to God what is God’s; you’re mired in sin, you’re consumed with consuming, your culture is a culture of death. Repent and return to the Lord before the Lord really does something about all this.” Prophets were no fun at parties.
John the Baptist had the same message, but with a twist: John wasn’t warning the people of God that God might do something; he was telling them that God was already doing something, and so you better get ready. And so John’s message was urgent and prescriptive: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, because something is happening, Someone is happening, and people, get ready. Prepare the way of the Lord.
As you’ve heard me say before and will hear me say again, Advent is a time of preparation, a time to prepare for joy. And just like you have to prepare a feast to have a feast, we must prepare our hearts and souls if we want to experience the joy that comes from meeting Jesus (again) on Christmas.
How do we do such a thing? Well, to revisit my corny metaphor, we might need to wander out of our individual circles. We all have a circle: the ring of habits that define our behavior, the priorities that set our days, the expectations of others about who we are, our own fear of the powerful people and forces that keep us encircled. Some parts of that circle are good, and likely some are not so good.
John the Baptist tells us today to examine that circle, to rid ourselves of habits and priorities and expectations and fears that are slowly killing us. He tells us that joy is coming, but that we’re likely not ready to receive it. He tells us that Jesus is coming and is now here, which changes everything; and so because everything has changed, we must live as if everything has changed.
Our question becomes, What are we willing to examine, expunge, or add to this Advent? Whatever you decide, Christmas is coming, and I pray that we will all prepare for unspeakable joy.