Perhaps the Israelites were just tired. Tired of being chosen. Of bearing that burden and responsibility of carrying the mystery of monotheism to the Nations. Tired of having to defend themselves. Of persecution and the law. Tired of the exiles and the traditions and the Passover, of having to remember, to hear, tired of Shema. Tired of waiting for the messiah to come. Tired of waiting still.
Perhaps Europe is tired too. Tired of its history and of wars. Tired of being the cradle of Western civilization: the apex of art and music and architecture and philosophy. Tired of councils, of orthodoxy, of parsing words and defending the faith (and living the faith too). And tired of being chosen. Chosen to bear the light of faith ad gentes. Perhaps Pope Francis and Benedict before him are right: Europe is asleep, like a tired old woman. Sleeping soundly. For being chosen to carry the truth to the Nations is tiring.
Perhaps we are tired, too. Tired of turning every corner and having to defend our faith. Tired of the scandals, divisions, of trying to live up to an ideal that seems so far out of reach. Tired of waking up every morning to be a parent, of respecting our spouse when he or she is not in the mood, of arguing for procreation and for marriage and for decency. Tired of living up to a life that we can’t quite seem to fit into. Tired of being chosen, of trying to be a light here in the city of Leuven.
The problem is that realized eschatology is not always so glamorous. Being a chosen people—if we can call ourselves that anymore—is not always so easy. It requires patience. It requires service. And it requires suffering: suffering because the message is so valuable, service because it is ours to hand on, and patience because we await the fullness of the promise once given that has not yet come. But we are not so good at being chosen. For we sin and we divide and we excommunicate and we war and we blame and make excuses and on and on and on. So we place the ideal aside. We are tempted to water down the truth. We doubt whether it is real. And we grow tired. We even go to sleep.
There was a moment in my first year as a priest, where after driving up and over the mountaintop over and over and over again to go to my other parish I just grew tired. Tired of climbing. Tired of the mountains. Frustrated that the work seemed so great. Saddened that the message was so beautiful, but so few wanted to hear it. But then Advent came around. The example of John the Baptist rang so true to me. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about my work. It wasn’t about the mountains nor was it about my comfort. It was about the one who came and who is to come. It was, and is, about Jesus.
And so in the dark, in the quiet hours of the night when the world has gone to sleep, a voice begins to ring out. A voice of one crying out in the desert: prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths. A voice that is like the alarm going off in the morning when we have been out too late drinking Rochafores: wake up. Prepare. Your savior comes. Make straight the paths. Let him in. Let him know you. Let him love you.
The reason that John the Baptist could leave his life and live in the desert, detested by many, clothed like a crazy man, eating such odd food, and willing to give up his own life is the one reason that supplies the only solution that will wake us up, that will wake Europe up, that could wake the Israelites up. HE KNEW THE CHRIST. He knew that Jesus was the one that they had been waiting for. He knew him and he loved him.
I sat on a plane coming back from Rome this last weekend and listened to a Flemish woman talk on and on and on about the problems in the church until I was hoping that we would hit some really bad turbulence so as to end the conversation. She told me of the problems with the mass, of language—Latin and Dutch and English and French, of conservatives and of progressives, of priests, of the hierarchy, of the teachings, of the music… And don’t get me wrong many of her complaints were well grounded. But at the end of the day her biggest problem from what I could see was not all of those things: it was that she had fallen asleep. She had fallen asleep to the reality that God in Jesus Christ has come to know her and love her and only in responding to that relationship could she wake up. It seems that if she just knew Jesus, then the mountains of her problems with the church, and with the world, and with everything else would be leveled and she would wake up and be part of the solution.
Many of us sit in classes day in and day out, we read books and research until our eyes cannot stay open anymore. We are searching, along with so many others, for something to wake us up from our present context. Some of the best minds in the world wonder what program will work the best to alleviate suffering, what structure must be put in place to bring justice, and what model of secularity will best assure the future of democracy. And these questions are important. But these things don’t contain in them that which the world longs for. These things don’t contain the answers to a world in need. And these things will only make us fall into a deeper sleep unless we heed the words of John today:
Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths. He desires to come to us and to meet us and to love us. He desires that we know him and meet him and love him. Only this will wake us up. Only this can make that tremendous burden of being chosen really possible. For this is realized eschatology. This is relationship. This is the love that God desires us to feel and know in him.
For many years the world was asleep in shadows and darkness and then the light on the horizon shown forth. That light woke up the world and gave us saints. It gave us Mary and her Magnificat and Paul and his pen; it gave us Cecilia and her song, and Benedict and his book; it gave us Catherine and her consistency and Thomas and his truth; It gave us Michelangelo and his masterpieces; Dante and his Divine Comedy, Shakespeare and his Sonnets, Leonardo and his Last Supper; Bernini and his Baldequino, and it gave us Teresa and her tenderness, and Pio and his piety. And it can do the same for us. For only in Christ does the human person wake up to the fullness once promised so many years ago.
If we’ve forgotten what it means to know Jesus, then perhaps this Advent is a moment for us to remember. If we’ve perhaps never fallen in love with him, then maybe this Advent is a time for something new. If we have grown tired, perhaps it is time to wake up, and for us to wake the whole world up, to a savior who has come to set us free.