I went to an Advent ‘Evening of Reflection’ the other night, and a Shakespeare class broke out.
That’s how our presenter started things out – by asking us to consider Macbeth’s memorable lament:
Out, out, brief candle! / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage / And then is heard no more. / It is a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / signifying nothing.
Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5
Our priest-presenter’s point? That the Incarnation provides a safe harbor against such existential angst. That God-with-us, Emmanuel, comes precisely to give our lives meaning — to lift us out of the sin and brokenness we inevitably encounter along the way.
It was a heady argument, I noticed. Along with Shakespeare, Father laid some Neo-Platonism on us…some Gnosticism…some Arianism…not to mention, certain teachings of the Early Church Fathers, along with a healthy dose of scripture.
Which is to say, a LOT of information came at us that evening. It was a bit like trying to take a sip from a fire hose: I enjoyed the sheer volume of the Christological content, even as I felt a tad overwhelmed by its intellectual heft.
A deeper Advent blessing from the presentation arrived only this week, as I sat and chewed on the scripture we hear at Mass on Gaudete Sunday. The cousin of Jesus seems to be having a ‘Macbeth’ moment of sorts:
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Slouched in a filthy prison cell, John could be forgiven for not recognizing that there had been any true purpose to his life. His job is ‘herald’ – to help others see God’s salvation at work in the world. But even he winds up wondering, “Is Jesus for real? Is this what we’ve been waiting for?”
Jesus reassures John’s disciples, by giving them a fresh perspective on the mighty deeds occurring right before their eyes: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear. The message is clear: God is with us, right here…right now.
And then, a twist:
Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? … Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?
The answer, in point of fact, might be “a little bit of both.” In Jesus’ day, the desert outside Jerusalem contained both a fancy palace – Masada, Herod the Great’s pleasure dome on the Dead Sea – and a monastic community – Qumran, which some believe John the Baptist may have called ‘home.’ So I can imagine curiosity-seekers making that very trek: wanting to see the pomp-and-majesty of Masada; drawn, too, to the cleansing ritual baths of Qumran.
And Jesus seems to know this about human nature: At times, we don’t really know what we want. Our lives are full of sound and fury: We pursue power. We seek prophets. We argue and philosophize. We accumulate. We dispose. We tweet…we post…we scroll. And in the end, we worry…that it might all come to nothing.
Advent’s gift, the Lord Jesus, is indeed an answer to our neurosis…our emptiness…our brokenness. But first, we must be led into the desert – and learn the lesson of the Baptist’s life:
“…among those born of women, there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.