People are rarely neutral about the approach of Christmastime. Some of us reside at a North Pole of intense anticipation and excitement, while others of us hole up at a South Pole of irritation and dread.
Usually, I am at the north end of the Christmas polarity. But there have been a few Advent seasons during which I have found myself at the South Pole, feeling strangely empty and somehow exhausted by all the hoopla. The first couple of Christmases after my dad died were like that for me. And while I was fortunate enough to have excited children in my home to drag me back into the festivities, I did get a little taste of the sadness that characterizes Advent for many people.
A season that is all about family can be a desperately lonely time for people who find themselves living in isolation, grieving the loss of a loved one, or trying to cope with family stress. And for those of us who follow the church calendar, if Advent happens to come at a time when we are in a spiritually barren place, the call to open up our hearts to the season can intensify our experience of doubt or alienation.
Undoubtedly, some people are just not “feeling it” this Advent, due to temperament or circumstance or who knows what. Perhaps the season finds you at a South Pole of sadness or in a wilderness of spiritual alienation. If that’s the case, it’s important to remember that Advent is a season all about longing and emptiness and waiting. It is a season set aside to help us realize that we need deliverance from our current condition.
Not coincidentally, two of this year’s Old Testament and the New Testament lectionary readings—Isaiah 40 and Mark 1—each begin in the same place. They are both set in the wilderness.
In Isaiah 40, the Israelites are at a South Pole of political exile and spiritual desolation. After chapter upon chapter of warnings and judgment, God begins to speak assurance through his prophet.
“Comfort, comfort my people,” he begins. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (v. 1). And then a voice cries, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (v. 3).
This metaphor of a kind of superhighway being made through the wilderness is a favorite theme of Isaiah’s. It asks the listener to picture the rough, nearly impassable terrain to the east of Jerusalem being smoothed out into a wide and welcoming path. And it has at least two layers of meaning.
First, for the long-exiled Israelites, it’s a promise of a yearned-for homecoming. This passage is sounding a theme played earlier in Isaiah 35, where the prophet promises the Israelites that they will eventually re-enter Zion, singing with joy as they go. He assures them that they’ll get there by traveling a highway of holiness that is devoid of lions and other beasts. In other words, a path is going to open up for them that is free from threat or danger.
But the metaphor resonates with another meaning, too.
Because whenever a king was coming to town, a herald was sent ahead to announce the impending arrival and to make sure that they host city rolled out the red carpet and prepared the way. So to the Israelite ear, the voice of one calling to prepare the way in the wilderness means not only that they are going to get to go home, but also that the Lord himself is on his way.
Isaiah reminds his listeners that everything changes when the king comes to town. “Every valley shall be raised up,” he promises, “every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain” (40:4).
This idea of the low places being lifted up, and the mountains being flattened, catches my attention. I find that I am a mass of high and low places—a curious mix of arrogances and insecurities. I often wind up thinking of myself, if I can paraphrase Anne Lamott, “as the piece of junk the world revolves around.” But Isaiah asks me to allow my places of haughtiness to be leveled to a proper humility, and my zones of despair to be raised up to courage and hope.
What’s more, because this charge to “prepare the way in the wilderness” is for the whole community, there is the undeniable implication that the disparity between the “have”s and the “have-not”s must be leveled into equity for everyone. So, Isaiah calls to us in the wilderness and invites us on a journey towards both personal holiness and social reform.
And it’s not just Isaiah calling us to prepare a way. In the New Testament Advent reading, the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark include a direct quote from Isaiah 40. Mark tells us that now the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” is John the Baptist, who has arrived on the scene as a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And John’s sole focus is heralding the coming of the king—of Jesus—who is the direct fulfillment of every promise ever made to God’s people.
It’s important to note that John is not only a voice crying to the wilderness—he’s a voice crying in the wilderness, from the wilderness. He’s a desert dweller, and his ministry is unfolding in the barren places east of Jerusalem.
John the Baptist grew up knowing that he had a special calling on his life. He was the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth—a couple who had already endured a lifetime of infertility and were geriatric by the time he was conceived. His birth was an undeniable miracle, one that had been announced by an angel in a speech that also made it clear that John had an incredible role to play in the story of salvation.
So, why did John choose to live in the wilderness? You would think a young man with a spiritual pedigree like that would set up shop in the most influential synagogue around—or better yet, in the temple—and wait for the religious leaders to recognize his authority. But John chose instead to head for the hills. What did he know about the wilderness that we don’t?
Maybe John choose to live in the wilderness because he’d heard enough of the history of Israel to know that God specializes in bringing good things out of unpromising places.
After all, God had worked out salvation history through childless couples, feuding brothers, stuttering leaders, wayward kings, and, now, in Jesus, a young man of questionable paternity born and raised in a series of backwater towns. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” a potential disciple had incredulously asked when he heard where Jesus was from.
John knew that, yes, when God is involved, something good could come from even a town of questionable repute like Nazareth. And something good could come from the wilderness, too.
Mark tells us that eventually Jesus joined John out in the desert and insisted that John baptize him. As soon as Jesus came out of the water, God’s spirit descended visibly on him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven publicly affirmed Jesus’ identity as the beloved son of Yahweh himself. You’d think after such an incredible affirmation, Jesus would move directly into his public ministry, but that’s not what happened. The same Spirit who had descended on him like a dove compelled him to go deeper into the wilderness.
Jonathan Martin argues that Jesus’ sojourn into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights was as much gift as it was trial.
Even though Jesus’ experience in the wilderness wasn’t easy—he fasted for forty days and forty nights and was confronted by the devil—the devil was not the only one he encountered there. The spirit sent Jesus into the wilderness, rejuvenated with the affirmation of his identity in God’s eyes, and allowed him to step away from his day-to-day life until the noise and hurry of the world around him was stripped down to the point where he could easily distinguish the voice of the accuser from the voice of the Father. The same can be true for us.
So, if you find yourself at a South Pole this Advent, consider the possibility that you are being offered the gifts of the wilderness. Advent is a time for waiting, and the wilderness is as good a place as any—maybe the best place of any—to wait. If you’re feeling a little empty, maybe that’s a good thing. After all, there is a voice crying in the wilderness, and he’s asking us to prepare him room.
Carolyn Arends is director of education at the Renovaré Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation. She is also a recording artist, speaker, author, and college instructor.