I’m really excited to be bringing you this Advent season guest-reflection, by my dear friend and colleague Jennifer Helminski! Here she is…
The nights are getting longer as winter fast approaches. Our plant and animal kin in the northern hemisphere are slowing down and transitioning to rest, hibernation, and going underground for the season– and yet for many of us, this is the busiest and most stressful time of the year. Students (like myself) are slogging through the end of the semester with whatever gas is left in the tank, and many of us are traveling and answering the demanding call of family holiday traditions, of shopping and gift-giving, while hoping to avoid a trinity of surging viruses. At the time of year when we should heed natural rhythms and do the least, we expect ourselves (and sometimes one another) to do the very most.
I don’t know about you, but I am tired. Tired of unnatural, disordered ways of moving through our lives without being deeply rooted in them. Tired of feeling out of touch with the passage of time because I am so busy juggling demands and meeting one deadline after another. Tired of ignoring what my body is telling me about needing to slow down. Tired of the lack of presence in myself and others.
So, you know what I’ve started to do? I’ve started to say no. I’ve become more discerning about what drains me and what fills me up, what erodes me and what brings me joy. With support from others, I am setting new boundaries and creating new habits that are more aligned with my well-being and the life I want to be living.
This has by no means been an easy feat for me, and I imagine the same might be the case for you. And so, I would like to extend this invitation to you, dear reader: if you gave yourself radical permission to live the life you desire, what would that look and feel like? What if we were to interrupt the life-denying forces of capitalism and tradition, which thrive on our unconscious participation, in order to slow down, to breathe into our beings, to take a sacred pause and reassess? What new wonders might we experience? What new modes of being and interbeing? I cannot imagine a more life-giving, redeeming, and joyful subversion.
Today we celebrate the Third Sunday of Advent which is also called “Rose Sunday” or “Gaudete Sunday” from the Latin meaning rejoice! Today is a day all about joy, as we have heard in our readings: “Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy…”, “Rejoice in the Lord always…” So we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath to remind us to be joyful in the Lord, that our hearts might open in gratitude and gentleness.
Now, I admit I find it a little funny that the Gospel reading on a day of such joy begins with John the Baptist admonishing a crowd of people that have come to him to be baptized, calling them a brood of vipers. That’s a pretty spicy opener in my book. And he follows that insult with an interesting question: Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
I wonder why he asks that. Is there a larger crowd before him than normal? Are those seeking baptism suddenly becoming more numerous? Perhaps he is questioning the intention in their hearts in seeking baptism: are they feeling guided by repentance, by God, by anxiety? Or is this becoming a popular rite of passage, something one does to follow in the steps of one’s family or community but which doesn’t necessarily mark a deep personal transformation? John’s words sound like a judgment–and they are–but they are also a promise.
His preaching is harsh, jarring, and challenging–especially so as we approach Christmas–and that is the intended effect. He is John the Forerunner, who proclaims the coming of Jesus and prepares the way for his ministry. By all accounts, John is a wild man. He lives in the wilderness, clothed in camel’s hair and subsisting on locusts and wild honey. John is not a prophet of comfort like Isaiah who comes to soothe a people in exile; he is a prophet on the wild edge, calling people out beyond what is known and comfortable, beyond the status quo, beyond ourselves. He has come to stir us from our slumber.
He is neither polite nor gentle in his speech. He does not promise the people protection from the wrath of God through baptism. He does not assure them that they’ve been doing their best, and that that’s enough. And he doesn’t tell them that they will be saved by their faith. No. John tells them in no uncertain terms that they need to radically shift their lives and their values in service to those more disadvantaged than them.
What are we to do? The crowd asks John three times. And how often do we ask this of God in our own lives when every day, every hour, some calamity weighs on our hearts, when the problems of the world seem too big for us to repair? News of violence, disease, conflict, and injustice on a global scale paralyzes us. When life overwhelms us, when we feel powerless, we cry out, What then shall we do? And how does John respond? He doesn’t tell them to change the world, but to change themselves, to live differently. The people who came before him did not have the power to eradicate poverty–they were likely poor themselves–but they could share what they had with the cold and hungry. The tax collectors could not overhaul the tax code, but they could be honest in their dealings. And the soldiers could not end the Roman occupation, but they could act with integrity and not abuse their power. John focuses his guidance on the people and their relationships with one another. His answers are simple and practical.
For those who want to fix the world, John’s answers won’t satisfy. Poverty still remains, unjust systems still exist, and power is still abused. But Jesus didn’t fix the world either. He showed us a different way of being, a different way of living with and relating to one another, different priorities and values, and then he invited us to follow his example. He showed us what it means and looks like to be human, to be the dwelling place of God.
My hope for all of us, myself included, is that we can heed God’s call into radically loving service. Let us walk together at the wild edge of faith to bear fruits worthy of repentance. Let our hands and feet, our words and deeds, do the work of attending to the suffering in this world, of healing sorrow and despair. Clothe and feed your neighbor. Love your neighbor. Struggle for justice for and with your neighbor.
Who knows what blessings come from this sharing. I pray that God blesses us all and continues to guide us in our service. And as we serve, may we remember to rejoice in the Lord, to ring out our joy, and to give thanks to Almighty God for our innumerable blessings.
Surely Advent is about the anticipation of joy, of rejoicing over the imminent arrival of Christ in the world. It’s about our expectation of the good that is to come. And today, in the midst of that joy, John reminds us that the good news is subversive. It upends our false ideas and tells us what the Godly way of living looks like: radical love and generosity.
What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to their Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.
Jennifer Helminski (she/her) is an author, poet, artist, and preacher who has a burning heart for ecological advocacy, sensual exploration, and spiritual renewal. Across her multifaceted vocation, she has recently co-authored federally-funded climate change research, assessed and advocated for the protection of our waters, led congregational chant, composed multimedia eco-chapel gatherings, and facilitated faith-community grief circles.
Jennifer has deep roots across the Abrahamic family of faiths, including Roman Catholicism, Mevlevi Sufism, and open-source Judaism. She is currently training in the ways of interfaith, ecological, and psychedelic chaplaincy.
Jennifer is a Master of Divinity candidate at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where she co-authored Union’s Declaration of Climate Emergency and a 10-year Climate Mobilization Action Plan for the surrounding community.
In her writing, painting, poetry, and preaching, Jennifer explores the intersection of ecology, love, and Spirit, helping all beings find belonging in this fertile and joyful tapestry. You can find her multimedia work at The Pomegranate and the Rose.
Jennifer, who provided this guest reflection, is in urgent need of medical care and could use our support. Please check out her GoFundMe to learn more about her important work and to contribute!