Advent Reflection on John the Baptist: "Prepare Your Heart"

This reflection was part of the Advent Prayer Series we led in our hometown and church.          The series was entitled Transforming Fear into Trust.

Mark 1: 1-8 (A Contemplative Translation)
A new beginning - this is the liberating transmission of Yeshua, YHVH’s own chosen vessel, sent to pour forth wholeness and freedom as the Manifestation of YHVH. 2 As it was written beforehand by Yesha’yahu, the one overflowing with the Divine Spirit:

“Look closely, I am sending my radiant messenger1 before your coming; He will prepare the way before you.
3 The voice of one crying out: ‘In the wild places, prepare the way for YHVH! Align the paths for YHVH to infuse humanity.’”

4 Yochanan the Immerser appeared in the wild places, proclaiming an immersion into the transformation of the eyes of the heart, to bring about the release of all that separates us from YHVH. 5 People from all over Y’hudah, and all of the inhabitants of Yerushalayim came out to him. They openly acknowledged their thoughts and actions that directed them away from YHVH, and were immersed by him in the Yarden River to express this change and expansion of heart. 6 Yochanan wore rugged clothes, made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, signifying that he was one of the YHVH’s wild, spirit-filled ones. He nourished himself with the insects and wild honey he gathered from the bounty of the land. 7 He taught: “There’s someone with greater spiritual power than me, and He is coming. I’m not even whole enough to effectively be His servant. 8 I’ve immersed you in natural water to symbolize change, but He will directly immerse you in the One Sacred Spirit!”

Reflection:
In this passage from the beginning of Mark’s gospel we are introduced to the figure of John the Baptist, a Biblical character who is raised to prominence in the season of Advent. His proclamation is “Prepare the way of the Lord”, or as the contemplative translation says it, “Prepare the way for that which is already present at every moment, YHWH – pure being.”
 
In our ordinary lives, we are rarely present to that divine reality and the people in John’s time were similarly aloof to the moment by moment presence of God. John’s call for his contemporaries and for us is a call to prepare the way for God who is already among us. The call is to awaken to a reality that’s already here. Of course, in the incarnation of Christ (Christmas) we’re celebrating Christ coming into the world in a particular time and place, in the singular body of Jesus. But we also prepare for Christ ‘coming’ into our heart and lives at a deeper and renewed level. In our preparation, there’s a remembrance of what happened once, but there’s also a preparing for what already and always is present - God. In this strange mystery, our preparation is to make this reality come alive, to make it become a living presence in our hearts and our daily lives.
 
What is John’s primary teaching? There are two. The first is a stripping down – he’s wild, living out on the margins, living off wild survival foods. He calls us to strip down to create space, to open up space. He’s calling people to change – and to take up a practice that is exactly the opposite of what the secular culture invites us to do in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The world invites us to grasp and try and fill our lives and homes, John calls us to strip away. The word metanoia is used by both John and Jesus in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. It’s often translated “repentance” in literal bible translations. Our modern sense of repentance partially contains what John was saying, but not entirely. The Greek word, metanoia, more fully means to expand or open (meta-) the eyes of the heart or interior self (-noia). Metanoia- open the eyes of your heart. Expand to be present to this divine reality.
 
The second action of John is immersion, which is the literal meaning of the word that is more commonly translated ‘to baptise’. Of course, when John was ‘baptizing’, baptism wasn’t the first sacrament of initiation into the church. The church didn’t exist. It was immersing people in water to symbolize a total change, and something new coming forth. It symbolized being cleansed and prepared for this new life and new reality. That’s also our invitation, to be immersed in God’s presence. To open to something new and create space inside our hearts, then to be immersed in the Divine Life. That’s right at the heart of our work of Advent.
 
When we talk about preparing for the Incarnation, the early church didn’t understand the incarnation as something that just happened to the one man, Jesus. They certainly acknowledged the incarnation in Jesus very fully. But the larger understanding was that when God became human, God took on allhuman nature - the whole species! God was united to our common humanity, the same nature dwelling in each of us, not only in the one person, Jesus. Jesus was the localization, concentration, manifestation of something that happened to all of humanity. As the church Fathers write: “God has clothed his own self with humanity so that we might be clothed with divinity.” “God became human so that we might become divine” and share in God’s life. The Incarnation is about our intimacy and union with God, not just Jesus’ union with God. Jesus is the sharer and a bearer of this new intimacy between God and humanity. That’s what we’re called to prepare for, to really make the Incarnation a known, felt reality rather than just an idea that we’re holding about what once was 2000 years ago.
 
Prayer practice:
This practice comes from and is slightly adapted from the book Prayers of the Cosmos: Meditations on the Aramaic Words of Jesus. The author looks at what the Aramaic of the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes would have been and what the robust understanding of these teachings were. Ancient languages have layers upon layers of meaning and nuance and Jesus, as a spiritual teacher, used the richness of the language to communicate the subtleties and layers of the inner life.
 
We’re going to pray with the phrase that we’re used to hearing as “Hallowed be thy name”, the second line of the Lord’s Prayer. In Aramaic is nethqadesh shmakh. The English translation gets this word “hallowed” (meaning holy, set aside, creating space, preparing) from nethqadeshShmakh refers to the name. The whole phrase, then, has this sense of “clearing space for the name to dwell” which is right in line with incarnation and what John the Baptist taught. This phrase has two movements within it that are the same movements found in John’s teaching: Stripping away and expansion. The stripping away in our time may be a clearing away of busyness, distractions, anxiety, etc. As we clear things away, as we declutter, there is also more space. There is expansion, there’s more room. This phrase then, nethqadesh shmakh, brings to mind a number of images.

  • Creating a room, an altar, or shrine for God to dwell like the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple; a set apart place
  • A gardener clearing away debris and weeds for a special plant; nurturing and tending to it
  • Cleaning out a flute that is clogged so it can make the music it was designed to make 

Choose an image that you resonate with the most. As you sit with the image, imagine that the Spirit is acting in this way (creating room, clearing away debris, cleaning out a flute) to prepare your inner space.
 
Turn your attention to the breath. As you breathe in meditate on the expansion of your heart. As you breathe out meditate on the stripping away of all that clogs this expansion.