12/8/19 – THE PRISONER by Samantha Crossley+

Advent 2, A, 2019

Matthew 3:1-12

Advent is a time of quiet, of stillness. As the lake surface coalesces into motionless iciness and the snow muffles ambient noise, the weather seems complicit in the stillness, even as our human driven surroundings of glitter and glitz and shopping and the steady world diet of violence and fear and hostility seem to combat any sense of quietude. In a tumultuous and hectic world – I look forward to that stillness every year. I have to admit that I did not anticipate and do not fully appreciate the extent of quiet that I have involuntarily achieved so far this Advent.

Aside from the obvious inconvenience of laryngitis, Advent brings us some very powerful words from the formidable John the Baptist – words about vipers and wrath and fire and repentance – words I guarantee he did not whisper at the crowds that gathered. Honest and zealous, Jesus’s brutally candid cousin had no trepidation about public opinion, no fear of trampling on powerful toes, no sense of humor and even less sense of fashion, but the man could preach. He could preach with a spirit that drew the people to him, to his baptism, to his message – draw the people even though his message seems to suggest a rather uncomfortable future of being chopped down and burned up. Preacher. Prophet. Voice in the wilderness.

In his book, Healing the Shame That Binds You, John Bradshaw shared the the parable of the Prisoner in the Dark Cave:

There once was a man who was sentenced to die. He was blindfolded and put in a pitch dark cave. He was told that there was a way out of the cave, and if he could find it, he was a free man.

After a rock was secured at the entrance to the cave, the prisoner was allowed to take his blindfold off and roam freely in the darkness. He was to be fed only bread and water for the first 30 days and nothing thereafter. The bread and water were lowered from a small hole in the roof at the south end of the cave. The ceiling was about 18 feet high. The opening was about one foot in diameter. The prisoner could see a faint light up above, but no light came into the cave.

As the prisoner roamed and crawled around the cave, he bumped into [large] rocks…He thought if he could build a mound of rocks and dirt that was high enough, he could reach the opening and…escape. Since he was 5’9”, and his reach was another two feet, the mound had to be at least 10 feet high..

So the prisoner spent his waking hours picking up rocks and digging up dirt. At the end of two weeks, he had built a mound of about six feet. He thought that if he could duplicate that in the next two weeks, he could make it before the food ran out. But as he had already used most of the rocks in the cave, he had to dig harder and harder…with his bare hands. After a month had passed, the mound was 9 ½ feet high and he could almost reach the opening if he jumped. He was almost exhausted and extremely weak.

One day just as he thought he could touch the opening, he fell. He was simply too weak to get up, and in two days he died. His captors came to get his body. They rolled away the huge rock that covered the entrance. As the light flooded into the cave, it illuminated an opening in the wall of the cave about three feet in circumference.

The opening was the opening to a tunnel which led to the other side of the mountain. This was the passage to freedom the prisoner had been told about. It was in the south wall directly under the opening in the ceiling. All the prisoner would have had to do was crawl about 200 feet and he would have found freedom. He had so completely focused on the opening of light that it never occurred to him to look for freedom in the darkness. Liberation was there all the time right next to the mound he was building, but it was in the darkness..

John found his wilderness far away from the edifices and restrictions of the religious hierarchy, in the harsh land surrounding the Jordan in which he baptized his followers – a literal wilderness. A land far away from here, a life far away from now. But his wilderness could have easily been in the darkness of a cave, or on a dimly lit street corner, or in a brightly lit home touched by grief, or addiction, or poverty, or loneliness, or illness. One author describes the wilderness as “a place of vulnerability, risk, and powerlessness. In the wilderness, we have no safety net. No Plan B, no rainy day savings account, no quick fix. In the wilderness, life is raw and unsettled, and our illusions of self-sufficiency shatter fast.” (Debie Thomas, Journey with Jesus)

John cries out urgently in the wilderness. “Repent!” He cries. Turn around. Change. Head for the way out of the darkness that surrounds you, the walls that hold you. Jesus stands with you in the wilderness, in the darkness.

“Repentance…” one author notes, “[also] underscores that change isn’t necessary for change’s sake, but rather that change is necessary because we’ve become aware that our actions are out of step with God’s deep desire for peace and equity for all God’s people and – taking Isaiah’s vivid imagery in the second reading seriously – for the whole of creation. Repentance, in short, is realizing that God is pointing you one way, that you’ve been traveling another way, and changing course.” (David Lose, in the meantime)

Jesuit priest Gregory Joseph Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. This program, which reaches over 10,000 people a year, centers on repentance in response to the unconditional love of God. In his 2017 book, Barking to the Choir, Father Boyle wrote this about Advent:

In Advent time, we are reminded over and over again: “Stay awake.” This is not a warning that death is coming but a reminder that life is happening. Now is the day of salvation. We see as God sees: with amplitude, wideness, and mercy. The only moment left to us to participate in this larger love, this limitless, all-accepting love, is the present moment. Can you hear it? The voice of the Beloved (90). Amen.