Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Voice in the Wilderness

The second and third Sundays of Advent belong to John the Baptist. Born at midsummer when the light overwhelms the darkness, John emerges full grown in winter's uttermost obscurity, waving the sparks of summer right before our eyes. The light is not lost! says John. It is coming! John, like the aurora, arrives to illuminate our way when in winter's gloom, we have lost it. He steps out of the wilderness, a tracker, one who points our goings.

John was a prophet. He spoke the word of God. Most popular depictions of John show a skinny wildman in skins, yelling at us to Repent! Next to the sweet babe of Bethlehem, he seems a crusty fellow, the sort one is reluctant to keep company with. And yet people did. They flocked into the wilderness to hear him preach.

Our age's discomfort with John may also be our age's discomfort with wildness. We may buy coffee table books that extol the grandeur of wild rocks and rivers, but when it comes to real life, we choose comfort. I know very few people who enter the wilderness simply to enjoy it. They go there to strive, to accomplish things: to climb mountains, to snowboard, to study science, to dare the rapids. Rare is the person who goes simply into nature to let it wash over and change them, to return to the places humans have called home for most of our time on earth. We prefer to impact others than to be impacted upon.

To those oppressesd by civilization, however, John brought comfort. He took people into the river and let it wash over them and change them. He showed the power and hope of wild places to those overdomesticated by empire. He acted as a bridge between the worlds: not, as most teach, between the Jewish prophets and the Christians, because there were no Christians when John walked the earth, but between the wilderness and the city, between Sinai and Jerusalem.

Most people who write about the forest and the city assume the one to be natural and the other made by human hands, but a city is really nothing more than the landscape of the human imagination. People who live in wild nature feel right at home amid the peaks and canyons of New York City. The problem lies with not one or the other, but with the split between them.

For most of our history, the wilderness was fully alive, sentient, a voice that, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, cried out. But with the rise of language, of grammar, of interpretation and social ordering, nature was silenced and only human discourse heard. But God is the God of all life, not just the human, and John incarnates the wilderness, just as Jesus incarnates the spirit.

In that spirit, it is interesting to note that John, the earthly one, for all intents and purposes, fasts, living only on locusts and wild honey, while Jesus is the spirited party goer. But that is true. To really live in nature, where food must be found and is often scarce, is to live lightly. It is only in the civilized world with its division of labor that some may always feast. The point is to reach abundance, of course, but we cannot do that if we do not, like John, practice restraint. Restraint is a kind of decency. By minimizing the gulf between the haves and the have nots, it acknowledges that we are all in this together.

Such is part of what John taught when he returned his followers to those waters which broke at their births.

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