My brother-in-law, Frank, is the CEO of the communications company he founded a number of years ago, a company that provides patient alert systems to hospitals and nursing homes throughout the state. But in addition to his work as a businessman, he is a juggler, someone who can have 5 balls or three burning torches or a number of bowling pins gliding through the air all at the same time, not dropping a single one. Frank has central and paracentral vision, that is, the ability to what is directly in front of him, something most of us enjoy. But as a juggler, his peripheral vision is quite strong because, when balls or flaming torches are hurtling through the air, most of that activity is to the side, above, and below – rarely directly in front of the field of vision. While you and I might think that we spend much of our time looking straight ahead, there is much activity on the edges of which we are not consciously aware. Is this ability to see on the margins, above, and below, a necessary part of our evolutionary development, a way of protecting ourselves from predators that might leap out from God knows where? Or could it be that our capacity for both central and peripheral vision simply keeps us in balance?
I was raised in a church not much different than our own that held to this conviction: Christ is present to us in the assembly of other Christians, in the proclamation of the Gospel, and in the sacraments of grace. We held and hold to this conviction because Christ promises to be present wherever two or three are gathered in his name; wherever his good news is proclaimed and lived; whenever someone is washed into baptismal life; whenever he offers bread as his Body and wine as his Blood. Such a conviction suggests, quite simply and yet quite profoundly, that you and I encounter the presence of Christ right in front us, in this place, through very ordinary persons and the gifts of this good earth: Christ acting in our lives with water, scented oil, light, speech, gesture, bread, and wine. Thus, as a child and a young man, I thought that God was present primarily in what I could see in front of me, in a church building, and on a Sunday or solemn feast day. Believe me: there is a consoling truth in this conviction that God will be present where God promises to be present and there is something quite dangerous about it, for the God we worship will not be – will not be – domesticated by what we can see or expect to see right in front of us.
Here, then, is John the baptizer to mess with us if we imagine for a minute that the presence of God can be safely confined to our ritual practice or to a small community nestled next to the Space Needle. For John intrudes into our lovely Advent Mass from the wilderness, smelling of stinky camel, ill-mannered, with bits of locust in his teeth. He is not a city dweller conformed to the social manners of polite persons. He has no college degree; no extensive experience in business. He does not come from the urban centers of religious, political, or economic power. He is not one of us. He appears in the gospel and in this Mass from the side, from the periphery where Elijah his ancestor, where all the prophets, where all truth-tellers usually appear. For John the baptizer lives in and speaks the truth of a world marked by militarized police, deep-seeded racism, exploitation of poor workers, growing chronic hunger, and violent entertainment in the many coliseums that dot the ancient world – and all of this sanctioned and blessed in the worship of Rome’s gods, those gods and their human representatives who want none of this to change. He appears in today’s gospel standing in the Jordan – that ancient river in which the Israelites re-enacted their liberation from Egyptian oppression each year by marching through the Jordan as if they were marching through the Red Sea over a thousand years before. John stands in the river of liberation, dissatisfied with the way things are, and cries out, “Who will deliver us from this mess?”
And so I wonder to what extent these Advent days of longing demand a certain disorientation, a willingness on your part and mine to expect something from the margin that just might catch us by surprise? Is it possible that if you and I long for deliverance from whatever mess, small or great, we experience, you and I might well encounter that comfort, that solution, that liberation, that needed change where we least expect it: on the edge, on the periphery where God may well be waiting for you, for me; waiting as a leopard to pounce on us, pounce on us with love? If you long for that day when things will be made right in our nation, when its racism will wither, its workers live and labor in dignity, the hunger of the many alleviated, the homeless at last in homes, its love of violent entertainments healed, its pollution at last washed clean, does not John call you and me to look to the margins for the person and the power that will animate our energies as you and I are caught up in the great work to advance the life-giving commonwealth of God on earth?
For you see, as wild and scary as he is and thus gaining our attention, John points to Another, to the One who is born with and lives with and struggles for those who experience the mess of this world; John points to the One who is born on the margins and lives and struggles for you and me and all creatures, who is already dwelling in the messiest or scariest or most fragile part of your life and the life of this beautiful yet troubled world, dwelling there with love, only with love, yet asking you, asking me: will you speak the truth of this world’s woe with love – for you cannot ignore the woe which diminishes God’s good creation? But this, too: Will your living into God’s love be a source of weal – not woe – but of weal, of health attentive to those who cry out for justice in our streets, who long for another chance, who made a mess of it and need help putting their lives back together? Will your words and actions this day and in the days ahead, like flaming torches flying through air, be lively light in the midst of winter’s darkness?