An Advent Chapel volunteer reflects on his experience.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,'” as the prophet Isaiah said.
– John 1:19-23
I want to tell you about something wonderful that happened at the Advent chapel this last Friday. There was compline / evening worship service that night… an inspiring service with chant, renaissance music and beautiful liturgy. It was led by a wonderful choir, with ethereal voices that gave thanks and praise at the end of a busy day. I remember telling the choir before they started, “Set up near the door, so that people can hear you. The music will draw everyone in as soon as they hear it! Everyone will turn around and take notice.”
The service every bit as meaningful as expected. There was only one disappointment. For the duration of the service, none of the busy shoppers actually stopped to come in to the chapel. Not one.
What are we to make of this?
Sure, some people peered in quickly as they walked by. Maybe they were just confused. The foot-locker guy across the hall seemed really curious, but he never actually set foot inside. Did we not put out a big enough welcome mat? Did I not tell enough of my friends? It was a beautiful renaissance worship service in the middle of a bustling shopping mall. A voice crying in the wilderness, indeed.
In the above reading from John, we hear about some other people who were perhaps as confused as those modern day shoppers. These were priests and Levites trying to figure just who John the Baptist was. According to this telling, John the Baptist was reasonably polite. (At least he doesn’t call them all a brood of vipers.) But he doesn’t really tell them who he is. “Make straight the way of the Lord”, he tells them, as the prophet Isaiah had said before him.
But what are we to make of this eccentric prophet, and of his words?
John the Baptist was referring to Isaiah 40:3. This was written about people ending their exile in Babylon – an end to Jerusalem’s suffering. At this time of year, we hear other readings from Isaiah, telling us that that the Lord has sent the prophet to bring good news to the oppressed, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to repair the ruined cities (Isaiah 61:1-4).
Is this what the prophets are calling us to do at Advent?
Sure, we do our share around here. About three weeks ago, Montreal City Mission put on an amazing benefit concert, called “Do 1 Thing” to raise awareness for refugee rights – refugees being, in so many ways, the most vulnerable people in our society. Two weeks ago BELIEVE and St. James United Church hosted Montreal’s annual World AIDS Day benefit concert lifting up those who are still suffering and are still ostracized due to complications from HIV. Recently the United Church moderator Mardi Tindal was in Durban, South Africa, meeting with other leaders from around the world for the United Nations climate talks. And all of this is happening during Advent.
Yes, we’re doing a lot, and I’m proud of it. Two weeks ago I got started in a discernment process at St. James United Church. Surely, this is the sort of social justice that I’m being called for… Well, sometimes, there’s doubt in my mind as to exactly what was envisioned by Isaiah, or John the Baptist, or any of the other early prophets, as to what they would be calling us to do.
Earlier this summer, I spent a lot of time with my good friend, and the spiritual guide in my life, John. I told him over dinner one night that I liked the social gospel, and I liked that part of it that I heard from the early prophets, but also that I didn’t fully understand them. What connection with God did these prophets have that maybe I was missing? What are they really saying, that you don’t hear at, say, an NDP leaders debate, or a climate change conference?
His response to me was, “Have you read Heschel?”. I admitted that I hadn’t. For those, like me, who may not have known, Abraham Joshua Heschel was a 20th century Jewish theologian, philosopher, and certainly a social activist. I recently saw an interview with Heschel from his later years. I remember at one point he was asked, what advice do you have for those who are young? He said many things, but above all, he said to live your life as if it were a work of art.
Live your life as if it were a work of art. This 20th century scholar who comprehends the mind of the prophets as well as anyone else, is telling me to go out and live my life as if it were work of art. What about John the Baptist, and making the paths straight (the sort of thing they always taught me in Engineering school…)
What are we being called to do?
I’ve given it some thought. When I look back on what I’ve done in the last few weeks, and what has been truly beautiful and a work of art, what comes to mind was attending a renaissance evening worship service of otherworldly inspiration on a Friday night in the middle of crowded shopping mall.
It’s a little unorthadox. It’s mildly subversive. And it is truly beautiful. Not really what I expected to do when I came back to school to study theology. Hmmm. Stay tuned…
Geoffrey Duerden is a student at the United Theological College and McGill University, and loves the Advent Chapel.