The Highway Leads Home
We had 13 at the house for Thanksgiving. My mom, sisters, nieces, and nephews came for the week. Sam and Joe were back from college. That meant lots of food and catch-up conversations. Both of my sisters have new jobs. One of them is living in a new city. The children changed so much since I last saw them. And of course, one unavoidable by-product of hosting family in a city like Chicago is driving.
I did lots of driving—three trips to Midway and five to O’Hare. I drove people downtown, to the mall, to a play, and to the movies. These days I use this (phone). Apps on my phone tell me how to get where I want to go and the best way to avoid the traffic. Even so, I sat in a lot of traffic jams. Sometimes my Apps sent me down streets I’ve never seen before and may never see again. Technology did not make my paths straight, as John the Baptist proclaimed, but hopefully, it did make them faster. Of course, there’s really no way to tell. All I can say is whenever I thought I knew better than the almighty apps on my phone it didn’t go well. It really hurts to be wrong—with everyone in the car looking at you—with a mixture of humor and frustration on their faces.
Needless to say, there was no GPS or phone app to guide people home from Babylon to Palestine 2,5000 years ago. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1). The prophet’s words were an answer to prayer brimming with hope and healing for the people of Judah whose homes had been destroyed and whose families were ripped apart. Virtually the whole population was carted off across the desert to Babylon where they lived in slavery for 49 years—fully two generations. This story from Isaiah is the tale of a second Exodus.
Once, God had freed their ancestors from slavery in Egypt; now they were again held captive, imprisoned by a foreign king, and separated from their home by another cruel and harsh desert. Into this bleak reality the words from Isaiah 40 broke like water in a dry land. In the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his pathway straight” (Isaiah 40:3). A royal highway would lead them home.
Lift up every valley. Make every mountain low. Make the uneven ground level and the rough places into a plain. Remove every barrier that separates my people from their home.
Technology makes it hard to appreciate the full impact of these words. When the energy required to get home come from your own body, you have a visceral sense what is involved. The fastest way is always the straight path.
When you find a path in the wilderness the walking is easy. When you find a path in the wilderness, you don’t have to worry about getting lost. When you find a path in the wilderness, you are not alone. Soon, there will be others to share the road with you. When you find a path in the wilderness, you are mindful of the thanks you owe to others who toiled to build it.
Advent is a double-entendre referring both to our deepest longing and to the fact that something new is already underway. The second Exodus was the beginning of the good news for the ancient Israelites. For us today, the beginning of the good news and our own exodus into freedom is a retelling of this story by John the Baptist. It is a gift wrapped in camel’s hair, mixed with locusts and wild honey. The peace of God that surpasses all understanding has cleared away every obstacle on a path straight to your heart and renew your spirit as the world around us remains locked in fear and darkness.
Chaplain Liz Milner works in the Santa Clara County jail. Over the past month, she and other volunteers have worked with the inmates in writing workshops, to reflect on themes of hope, waiting, and freedom. Their poetry from prison help us illuminate and reflect on this beautiful season. When the trimmings are stripped away from Christmas and the holiday season, what do we find worth waiting for? Is there more than gifts, candy, big dinners, and time off work?
One inmate writes:
“I am waiting for freedom
I am waiting for a really Big Slurpy
I am waiting for my Self to see
I am waiting for love ever after
I am waiting for a better time
I am waiting for the day I Meet God
I am waiting on waiting!”
“I am waiting for hope to shed some light
I am waiting for God to stop saying not yet
I am waiting for the light to get a little brighter
I am waiting for the new me to be fully out
I am waiting for my wife to say we will fulfill our vows
I am waiting for my chance to show God I’m ready.”
Over two million Americans are incarcerated today. The United States imprisons more people than any nation in the world, including Russia and North Korea. Chaplain Milner reflects, “The readings this week imply that we are waiting for something, someone, profound and holy. They urge us to anticipate with excitement, with hope, and while we wait, to prepare, not our homes, but our hearts. Working in the jail is a gift because it places in front of me each day men and women who are waiting for deeply sacred gifts: healing, freedom, restoration, transformation, love, and on and on.” (Poetry from Prison: Advent Waiting, Journey with Jesus, 12/03/2017)
For all the hurting people in all the broken places of the world, Advent flickers with hope. The barren branches of the Jesse tree proclaim ancient wisdom from of old: new life comes again even after humanity has done its worst to hurt, kill, and destroy. Systems of oppression and pernicious cycles of violence even now are being undone by the way of Christ’s cross. The cross marks the way, the path that leads out of the wilderness and into deeper connection and community with each other, and will all people.
Listen, to John, the Voice Crying in the Wilderness. He alone knows the way to Bethlehem. Bethlehem lies beyond the trail of tears. Our tears. And it arises in mystical time, in a moment that is forever available, and never easy to find. (Nancy Rockwell, The Bite in the Apple)
This is our destiny. This is the point of convergence where we meet each other and we recognize each other as seekers of Advent awakening, including those of different religions. You don’t need no phone app or technology. The way of Christ leads straight home to God. We can be there in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, in less time than it takes to say, ‘Amen.’
Paul writes, “May the mind that is in Christ Jesus also be in you” (Philippians 2:5). This is how we gain entrance to the royal highway prepared for you. “It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace, are not meant for this earth and for this history—[instead Advent declares] This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers [of every nation and religion] shall worship God in spirit and in truth.
So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ—the life of the world.” (From Testimony: The Word Made Flesh, by Daniel Berrigan, S.J. Orbis Books, 2004.)