A Contemplative Christmas: The Mystery of Approach

By Jan Richardson

This is the fourth in a series of Advent reflections by Jan Richardson that will be available at the Mainline Protestant Portal at Patheos in the coming weeks.

Preparing the Way, by Jan RichardsonReading from the Gospels, Advent 2, Year C: Luke 3.1-6

In his book Anam Cara, John O'Donohue has a section called "The Mystery of Approach" in which he writes,

For years I have had an idea for a short story about a world where you would approach only one person in the course of your life. Naturally, one would have to subtract biological considerations from this assumption in order to draw this imaginary world. You would have to practice years of silence before the mystery of presence in the Other, then you could begin to approach.

I'm taken with O'Donohue's notion that to approach another person is an act of reverence that requires preparation. Most of us cross paths with so many people in the course of our life that we often forget that to encounter someone, to truly meet another, is a sacred act. Given how very many of us there are on this planet, and how frequently we allow the image of God in us to become obscured, it's easy to overlook the way in which coming into the presence of another -- a being who is created in the likeness of God -- is a sacrament and a wonder.

This week, John the Baptist, along with his predecessor Isaiah, has been calling me to remember what it means to prepare to encounter another: in this case, of course, to come into the presence of one who is not just created in the image of God but who is God. In describing what the Baptist has come to do, Luke evokes the potent words of Isaiah, words that are full of an ancient hope for one who will come to restore and redeem:

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 
 ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'

One can imagine that John the Baptist, this locusts-and-wild-honey-eating, camel's-hair-wearing prophet, must have spent his own time of preparation in the wilderness before he began to call people to prepare for the one who was coming. It was only by making himself ready -- by straightening the paths within himself and smoothing out all that was rough in his interior landscape -- that John was able to do the work that God had called him to do. And so we, too, are called in this season: to attend to and prepare our inner terrain so that we may welcome Christ in our lives and in our world.

But I have to tell you: this vision of straight paths, filled valleys, and mountains and hills leveled out -- it rather gives me the willies. What Isaiah describes, and what John the Baptist is testifying to and working for, is a world that has undergone an apocalyptic leveling out. What will be left, it seems, is a landscape marked by little but its even, unrelenting flatness.

I wonder at that, because I think that part of what God loves about us is the stuff that makes us complicated and complex -- the things that give texture to our terrain. By and large, we humans are not simple, are not smooth going, do not make things easy. I have a hunch that God takes a shine to us because of this: God likes a good challenge. And so the prospect of a landscape that is uncomplicated, that is flat, that does not have any meandering paths that take me to places I had never imagined going yet where I find God nonetheless: this strikes me less as a heavenly vision than a vision of a place far removed from paradise.

And yet.  And yet. As one who not infrequently is prone to making my life more complicated than it needs to be, I find myself pondering Isaiah's words, and pondering them again. In this season of preparation, Isaiah and John challenge me to consider: amidst the complexities and complications of my life, is there something I need to do to make it easier for Christ to enter my terrain and to be known in this world? Is there some path through my soul that I need to straighten, to smooth? Is there some mountainous obstacle that needs to be brought down -- not to flatten my soul into a stultifying sameness, but so that Christ may meet less resistance within me?

It may be tempting to think that we should prepare ourselves more strenuously to encounter and welcome Christ than to meet anyone else. This season, however, beckons us to remember that the incarnation takes place anew each day, and that Christ comes in the form of those whom we meet on our path. How are we preparing ourselves to encounter Christ in them? How do we ready ourselves for this sacrament, this mystery, this miracle? Amid the graced and necessary complexities of who God has created and called us to be, how do we make a space for the One who desires to approach and meet us in this and every season?

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