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The days are short, the shadows long. I can hardly wait for the light of Christmas to arrive. The darkness of our lives awakens deep within us the longing for God’s coming in the flesh. 

It’s interesting how the length of Advent varies from year to year. Some years it starts on November 27, and takes forever before you get to Christmas. This year, we have the shortest Advent possible—a mere twenty-two days. Nothing you and I can do will shorten the Advent period. The liturgical calendar just is what it is, and this year, thankfully, the waiting period isn’t very long at all.

The liturgical calendar is an image of the cosmic calendar. But the cosmic calendar is one we can speed up. The apostle Peter tells us explicitly that we can speed up the coming—the Advent—of the day of God. After giving a dramatic description of that coming, he tells us, “Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Pet. 3:11–12).

The opening lines of Mark’s Gospel teach much the same. And the mechanism for shortening the Christmas wait is the same in both Scriptures: It is a life of holiness and godliness that speeds up the coming of our Lord.

Holiness and godliness is Peter’s language. Mark’s Gospel instead simply talks about “the way.” Quoting the Old Testament—Malachi 3 and Isaiah 40—Mark repeatedly talks about the way: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way” (Mal. 3:1); “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Isa. 40:3).

Ways or paths are for traveling. Mark 1 is full of travel-talk. Mainly, it is God who is traveling on these paths. The messenger, John the Baptist, prepares the Lord’s path. First and foremost, Advent is about the coming of God, about God traveling down to end the misery of our exile and to care for us: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned” (40:1–2). John the messenger prepares the way of the Lord, a journey reaching from the highest heaven to the deepest hell.

But the Lord is not the only one doing the traveling. Most startling, perhaps, is John’s own travel. He is just suddenly there, in the Judean desert, by the Jordan. “John appeared,” the text says (Mark 1:4). Where did he come from? How did he get to this wilderness place? How did he appear? We have no idea. 

And look at all the people flocking to the desert: “All the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him” (1:5). This is Isaiah 40 in action: “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Isa. 40:5). John is the obvious desert saint, preparing the way of the Lord, his holiness shortening the time between now and Christmas. But saints never want to be alone. The people coming to John are wannabe desert saints. They want to be John the Baptists themselves, messengers of the Lord, preparing the way of the Lord.

Not merely Jesus is traveling—everyone is traveling. John appears in the wilderness. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem are traveling too. The key point is this: The way or the path that God takes is the very same one that John takes, the very same that the people from Judea and Jerusalem take, the very same that you and I take, as well.

When I became an Anglican six years ago, I started doing Morning Prayer. One thing it includes every day is the Benedictus, the Song of Zechariah. Once he names the baby John, Zechariah is able to talk again, and the first thing he does is sing the Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath visited and redeemed his people.”

I had to get used to reciting the Benedictus every day. My life clearly links up with Jesus, but does it connect also with John? Why should I recite a song about John the Baptist every day? I think the answer is this: You and I, we are John the Baptist. Zechariah sings about you and me: “And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways.” Our job description is that of John the Baptist: Preparing the way of the Lord.

It is easy to misread the preparation part, to think that John's job and ours is totally different from what Jesus came to do—as if we were simply construction workers paving the road, so that Jesus would have it ready to travel on. But the “way of the Lord” in the Bible is the way of God’s law. It is the life of repentance and forgiveness that the people of Judea and Jerusalem are looking for. It is the life of holiness and godliness that Saint Peter talks about.

John travels through the desert and arrives at the Jordan River; all the people, too, are traveling through the desert to cross the Jordan River. The road they are on is none other than the exodus journey of long ago.

John, the people he baptizes, you and I, we are all traveling the exodus journey. The “way of the Lord” is the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The way of the Lord is a picture of the Christian pilgrimage—the road of holiness and godliness, of repentance and forgiveness.

This road shortens our distance from God, for soon all God’s messengers—John the Baptist, all of Judea and all Jerusalem, and all God’s holy church—will see God appear in Zion. That is where the desert journey and baptism take us: “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (Isa. 40:5). Soon our traveling days will end, for we shall see God’s glory in the Promised Land.

The road of holiness and godliness shortens our distance from God. God’s Advent—whether his coming in Bethlehem, his coming in our hearts, or his coming on the clouds—will not happen without our holiness. As Scripture says, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Only holy people can see a holy God (Heb. 12:14).

True, we prepare the way of the Lord—but not in the sense that we do the preaching while Jesus does the traveling. No, we prepare the way of the Lord by traveling the very same road that he travels—through the wilderness, through the Jordan, and on to the Promised Land. We hasten the coming of Jesus by sharing in the purity, the kindness, and the mercy of Jesus.

The idea that we might speed up the cosmic calendar might seem to question the transcendence of God. This would indeed be so if God’s path were a different path than ours, for then we would have to do our traveling on our own, tasked with speeding up God’s coming on our own. Similarly, if with John the Baptist we did the road construction while leaving Jesus to do the traveling alone, it would be our construction skills by themselves that made God’s hurry possible. 

The divine economy knows no such mutual exclusion between God’s actions and ours. His journey can be ours, and ours can be his, working in perfect synergy, hastening the cosmic calendar.

You remember the name that people used for the church in the book of Acts: They called it “the Way.” Saul, we read, persecuted people belonging to “the Way” (Acts 9:2). The reason for that name is obvious: We are on a trek—not just any trek, but a trek defined by holiness—holy in the desert, holier in the river, and holiest in the New Jerusalem.

Hans Boersma is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Professor in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

Image by sonic.knight licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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