“I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now.” Philippians 1:4-6.
As we begin this holy season of Advent, we turn to the gospel of Saint Luke. He introduces John the Baptist with great fanfare – the herald of a new age, proclaiming a kingdom of the heart.
The gospel writer places John and Jesus and those who followed them into a historical context. He is painfully aware of the deep divisions between the Jewish population and their Roman occupiers.
When Tiberius Caesar ruled the empire, Pontius Pilate was his governor from roughly 26 to 36 A.D. These powerful Romans headed distant regions, as far west as Spain, as far north as the British Isles, and the Middle Eastern deserts. Their roads and culture were the infrastructure of an empire, the very source of their power.
Which path do we take during this Advent? Sometimes, it is not an easy choice, especially living in social and political turmoil.
Recently, I came across an article on English gardens, and more specifically, the cultivation of hedges in the form of the maze or labyrinth. This might sound like an odd reference, but the history of formal gardens in grand estates might be relevant here. Let me explain.
In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland,” Alice meets up with the Queen of Hearts toward the end of the dream-like fantasy. They are in a hedge-row, a puzzling maze where the queen declares, “Off with her head!” And, of course, Alice must find her escape. The author spun stories for children and was a creator of games. Carroll used this literary device to heighten Alice’s dilemma. Let’s return to the design of a maze or hedges in formal gardens.
In the New Yorker article, “The Garden of Forking Paths,”(11/29/21) writer Nicola Twilley makes reference to a sermon by Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. In his sermon, the prelate recounts a recent dream, like Alice’s dream in Carroll’s tale. He says: “You know how sometimes in an English garden you find a maze…. the trouble is to get to the center of all those hedges. It is easy to get lost.”
That’s the very reason for the maze. In the 19th century, these garden attractions were a form of an amusement park without Disneyland rides.
Runcie suggests that to find the proper exit to the maze, you only progress to your goal by turning back toward the periphery and engaging with those still outside the gate. For me, this recalls the very role of John the Baptist, someone at the edge and in the desert.
To clarify what Runcie is suggesting for Christians in puzzling times, to gain perspective in this maze, we need to step back and go to the edge to get a clear view of the church’s accurate guidance and direction.
At great cathedrals, such as Chartres in France or our Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, there are the installations of a labyrinth, a two-way path, so you may meet others coming or going on the trail. These indoor meditation paths help shed your thoughts and let go of the details of life. When you reach the center of the maze, it is a place of prayer. And as you leave, you follow the same path joining God, the higher power, that healing force at work in the world. According to the Grace Cathedral description of the labyrinth walk, “Each time you walk this path you become more empowered to find and do the work for which you feel your soul is reaching.”
So once again, we see the figure of John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of forgiveness and the mention of Isaiah’s words: “A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths….The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.’”
The gospel of Jesus, rightly understood, proves to be a moral compass to discern a direction in life – what decisions need to be made, and what path to take that we may be of service to one another and the broader community.
While in prison and facing his death, Paul writes the most encouraging words: “Because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this that the one who began a good work in you will complete it.…and this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge to discern what is of value-filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. “
Will this Advent set you straight on your life course? Will this Advent prepare you to make this decision for Jesus and welcome him into your life?
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA.