John the Baptist comes out of the wilderness, clad in skins, like an Israelite fresh from the desert, or a being newly arrived out of Eden. He is pre-agricultural. His message is that we took a wrong turn somewhere back around the invention of agriculture, when we built cities, armies and forced slaves to do our work. His message is that God’s power is not about empire and structure and the terror of death, but is about life, collaboration. The truth is different than what our eyes see and our ears hear. In God’s world, lions really do lie down with lambs, and the fact that they don’t at the moment is not a reflection, upon nature, but upon our stewardship of creation.
God made us the caretakers of creation, and that did not change when we were impulsive and ate the fruit of knowledge too soon, but we sure wanted to make it that way. Instead of continuing our work, older and wiser, we lashed out at God, blaming him for cursing us, and formulating a rigid doctrine of original sin. We took that “curse” and imposed purity laws upon women and animals. Original sin gave men a reason to create hierarchies and control others “for their own good,” “to save them from their impetuous nature.” This only proves that original sin can be a most intoxicating idea. When there is nothing that can be done about our bad nature, one might as well just go with it and grasp as much as you can. Original sin makes it possible to settle for less, to punish others, to create hierarchies based, not upon goodness, but upon the control of evil.
John says that’s serpent talk, not human talk. Curses were made to be broken. God set us a task when we left Eden, not a punishment. But instead of building up the world, we wallowed in our own unworthiness. How unhelpful can you get? Get over it, says John. Wash all that bad thinking away. Come and be baptized. Shed the blindness of a society that equates power with cruelty and slavery and poison, that blames others because God maybe blamed me. Be born again. Grow wild. Go slowly. Listen for the voice of God amid the waves. Find the true power, which is life, which is community, which is abundance.
As an eco-theologian, I am always tempted to stop there. I am tempted, as I have done in previous years, to link John the Baptist with my hero John Muir and to proclaim with Henry David Thoreau that “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” I want to plunge into the waters and swim with the fish, to return to the great well of Creation.
But I cannot. I can’t stay in the waters forever. John is the threshold, not the destination. He is here to prepare me, not to return to nature, but to become one with it again so that I might take the next step. Nature is where I am called to repent, says John, for how I treat it will define how I treat everything else. Is the world a series of resources, including human resources, to exploit, or is it a community to be a part of, to love, to learn, to give, to seek truth and happiness?
As I said, Advent is a hard season. The Church year begins with hard questions. Amid all the noise and the haste, it is asking me: can I recognize the Christ, or have I, in the midst of my fear and self-love lost him? Can I meet the Christ Child when he or she comes again? Can I lay aside my life’s work and embrace a whole new world? Am I ready to give up my answers and take into my arms the greatest mystery in all creation; can I bow before a newborn child?