There is a very interesting dynamic to the liturgy as we proceed through Advent. It is a bit like the promotional strategy to an epic action film. There is a juxtaposition of cosmic storytelling and introspective silence. There is the recounting of generational suffering and the anticipated return of the king, the messiah who will set these right, but also the humility of not being the main character, the humility of concrete decisions, looking after an elderly cousin, moving a family because of government decisions.
Last week, we had that incredible series of reading. Isaiah spelling out that God had not left Israel to suffer forever. That the time of repentance for God’s people was nearly over. God was coming to set things right. Then we had St Paul not only calling into question our sense of time – To God a day can be an age, and an age a day – but also describing the end of the world in vivid terms: the sky disappearing with a roar; the elements catching fire and falling apart.
Finally, we had St John the Baptist warning everyone that he was the beginning of the end. He was the one preparing the way for the one who was coming to baptise everyone in the Holy Spirit, the same Holy Spirit that is the fire that causes the very structure of the world to fall apart. And his message was repentance, that is, to lean into the fire. Admit that my life was disintegrating ahead of time. That it needs to be burned down and then rebuilt.
But today there seems to be a change of pace. Yes, our first reading still has that sense of epic film. (Perhaps one can imagine some underdog leader of rebels making this speech before leading his people into battle.) Likewise, our psalm, the Magnificat: this has something triumphal about it.
But, it can be heard in another way, too. As I mentioned at the beginning, it can also be heard in a quieter way. More along the style of St Paul’s letter this week. In terms of practical advice. In terms of prudential judgment. In terms of perseverance. A quite confidence in the light of faith. We have the gifts and so get on with it. God is with us, so pray and be happy.
But I think it is perhaps seen best both in St John the Baptist, and next week in our Lady.
Again, it is worth remembering exactly who St John the Baptist was. He was the biggest religious figure of his time. Better known even than Jesus. He was the son of a high priestly family, who chucked it in to live in the desert. He replicated a bunch of the Temple rituals in the wilderness. And people from all over the country came to participate. The cliché these days of preachers of fire and brimstone, of judgement and hellfire: he did that. And it worked. He must have been one of those fiery leaders who can see into your soul, whose words leave you nowhere to hide. Even though he was like this, people from all over came to see him. People were drawn to him despite themselves. He must have had enormous personal power. His holiness must have been obvious.
Yet, this Sunday, he points away from himself. He insists that he is not the main event. He is the warmup act, the warmup act that must be forgotten as soon as the main act arrives. Even though he looks like a storm, he says that he is just the cool breeze that precedes the storm. Even though he sounds like an earthquake, he insists he is just a tiny tremor signalling what is to come.
This is the strangeness of Christianity. We are supposed simultaneously to see the big picture, to know the unbearable drama that is inside and behind all that is happening, and at the same time, just point away from ourselves, just get on with it. Keep calm and rejoice.
What we know is weirder than the weirdest conspiracy theory, but we also know that without this mystery nothing else can make sense. We know that that the settled doctrines of the world are in the end the worst kind of superstition, but at the same time we have to make the best of it, holding on to what is good and letting go of what is bad. Maintaining a steady course.
This is what I mean about the strangeness of Advent. The whole Christian vision seems to come to a massive climax, and then we find ourselves in a stable, at a manger, with a small family trying to keep warm, trying to host strange visitors, and then trying to stay alive. It begins to ramp up again.
We hear in our preface today about both the loud proclamation of St John the Baptist and the quiet longing of the Virgin Mother, both of them for her child and their messiah, both things true at the same time.
Perhaps in our Mass today we might pray for the gifts to navigate this mystery. That we might know when to be loud, and when to be quiet. When to shout the mystery, and when to close the door and pray. May St John the Baptist teach us to point to Christ always, and our Lady help us to ponder these things always in our hearts.