Sunday, December 6, 2020

Preparing the Way

This second week of Advent is about preparation. After waiting hundreds of years for the Messiah, the stage has been set. But one more thing remains: Someone to prepare the way.

Throughout the history of God’s people there had always been a prophet, a representative between God and man. Now, after 400 years of silence, a new kind of messenger emerges. In the last prophecy of the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi declares, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” (Malachi 4:5).

Because of this, many were on the lookout for a returning Elijah. Even today, in Jewish homes during Passover, it is customary to leave a space for the great prophet and open the front door in hopeful expectation. But the messenger Malachi calls “Elijah” has already come. His name was John.

Much later in the story, John will become John the Baptizer. This is where the author of Mark brings John into the story. He is an adult, living in the wilderness like Elijah his predecessor, preparing the way for Jesus. Mark opens with a combined prophecy from both Malachi and Isaiah:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”
(Mal. 3:1)—
 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”
(Is. 40:3)

But before John was a “voice calling in the wilderness,” he was a hoped-for babe. Luke is the only Gospel author to record John’s entry into the world. Indeed, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story of expectation and faith feels so needed, so necessary for the story of Jesus’ birth. Even before John is born, he plays a necessary part. From within his mother’s womb, he prepares the way as one of the first witnesses to the coming Christ.

John and Jesus. Cousins. Similar yet unique. Deeply connected, their stories intertwined in magnificent ways. And it all begins with their births. One longed for, One an utter surprise. Both foretold. Both real humans who walked the same ground many still tread today. Born at a time when baby’s lives were fragile and their futures unsure.

We are thinking about the fragility of life a lot right now. A pandemic will do that. Nothing seems certain.

Throughout this long season of stay-home orders and social distancing, I’ve been re-watching a lot of my favorite TV shows. One of them is Call the Midwife. If you’ve never watched it, I highly recommend you do. It is at the same time gentle and raw, heart-breaking and inspiring. In every episode, babies are brought into the world with the aid of midwives from the order of St. Raymond Nonnatus. Some are longed for, others fall into line behind multiple siblings already scrambling for food, love, and care. The stories are narrated at the beginning and end by the main character, all grown up, reflecting on her (and the other midwive’s) experiences. In season eight, Jenny’s words during the Christmas special suddenly struck me as perfect for Advent. So I re-wound and re-wound until I copied them just right:
None of us have ever truly walked this way before.
But if there is no map, no route,
no arrowhead to follow there is sometimes a star.
And we do not make our way without companions.
As the road unfolds, we travel side by side
and share the shift from darkness into light.
We often think of Jesus as a lone individual on Earth. He walked around with the Trinity (invisible to human eyes) always by His side. Jesus didn’t need John as a companion for his journey from birth to death. But we do. We need someone to travel by our side, to prepare the way. Before the curtain lifts and we see the Christ child in the manger. Before the star shines brightly above Bethlehem. Before the angels sing their Hallelujahs, we need to know that baby John leaped for joy at the mere presence of his King.

The Christmas story is so familiar to us. May we not forget that every detail of the narrative was planned by the same God who hung the stars in the sky. There are no mistakes, no details too small, no concepts too big. If there is a character tasked with preparing the way, then we better we ready for something “great and awesome” to come.

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