The central figure in Advent is John the Baptist, a figure both angry and angular emerging out of the desert. In coming out of a place of death, he establishes a theme which will run right through the New Testament, that the wisdom of God is found deep in the heart of our mortality.
Last year I spent a week in the Sinai desert on a silent retreat. When we were bidden to go find a sand-dune to pitch our bedding, mine was next to a bleached bone sticking out of the ground as a reminder, if I needed one, that the desert was a place on the edge of life and death. Looking down from my meditation spot to the camp where our food was being prepared, I realised that the only things between me and oblivion were a handful of Bedouin and a tent full of bottled water.
The desert is a great teacher, it strips you back to what is really essential, what really matters, like all things which have to do with our mortality, the important things come into focus in an instant if we are facing our end. Rowan Williams observed in his reflections on being in lower Manhattan on 11 September 2001, Writing in the Dust, that the passengers in the doomed airliners, once they knew their fate, their last acts were to call loved ones, to make sure that nothing was left unsaid to those most important to us; it was a moment of profound truth and affirming what was essential.
Many years ago, on an Ignatian retreat, my first task was to write my own obituary. In the age before laptops, the waste-basket of my room filled very quickly with half-finished scripts which had foundered at the first sign of the lies and illusions which I maintained about myself. All of these have the same motivation: self-esteem, competitiveness, concerns about one’s rank, standing, significance, why we should not be overlooked, why we were not run-of-the-mill. It took a long time that day to ruefully discard the phoney sentences, and it was only then that I was surprised to discover where there may be real gold.
James Alison tells us that, being mortal, having a life which we know is going to end, naturally makes us competitive or jockey for attention; my time is short, do not overlook me. His observation about resurrection was that Jesus did not return to those who had judged and condemned him. His death was behind him, he was free from the anxiety of mortality, who would prevail, and the preoccupation with status that it brings. He had nothing to prove by going back to Pilate, Herod or Caiaphas; instead, Jesus went back to his disciples. In other words, death revealed what was most essential, most important.
So this madman, the Baptist, comes out of a place of death bellowing judgement. Judgement comes down to one thing: have we ordered our lives to attend to what is most true, most important, most essential? Can we take our baptisms seriously, treat that moment as our death, and live as if our deaths were behind us, free of the need to worry about who we are, and get on with the business of what really matters?
Andrew Spurr is Vicar of Evesham in the Diocese of Worcester