“Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth“ Luke 3:5
The words of the prophet Isaiah, recorded in Saint Luke’s Gospel sound wonderful when set to music, but have they anything to say to us on damp and dark December days?
I remember one December morning, driving along a country road in Co. Antrim feeling tired and jaded and listening to the BBC.
Christmas was approaching and it was not an easy time for many people in the parish. There were pockets of real, deep social deprivation and the Christmas advertising and the images in the media seemed almost to taunt people who struggled to make ends meet all the year. It was always a great time for the loan sharks, men who would charge thousands of per cent interest on small cash loans. People would be paying for months to come for the money they had borrowed to buy some small Christmas present. We had tried to get the Protestant churches in the town to take an interest in the issues facing poor people and they did not want to know.
There was not much sign of crooked roads becoming straight and rough ways smooth in our town. Isaiah’s words were nice poetry and sounded good set to music, but they had no practical application in our part of the world. Advent and Christmas seemed a very flat time.
There was a Radio 4 programme on as I drove. It had the atmosphere of one of those radio programmes that come from a world where there are no loan sharks and no-one in prison and no-one counting every penny to try to make ends meet; being a Christian on the BBC always seemed such a pleasant pastime. The programme was about the great spiritual writer Thomas Merton, and how he had entered monastic life during the season of Advent.
Advent for Merton, who was a man very firmly rooted in the political realities of the world, was full of rich symbolism and meaning. Merton was a man who could have coped well both in the poorest of housing estates and in the corridors of the BBC.
I have no recall whatsoever of that Christmas, but I do remember thinking to myself that I must look out some of Thomas Merton’s books to discover why he found so much meaning in the winter days of Advent.
Here’s what he wrote about waiting and expectation in “Advent hope or delusion”,
‘The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen’
“We must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance”, says Merton. It seemed to make perfect sense.
Hoping for a changed world did not bring conflict with people who thought the same way, it brought conflict with those who were doing very well from the present world, who wanted nothing to change.
“We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities”, he says. The very thing many churches do is to become ‘spiritualised’, to make churches a place of religious experience that has no connection with what is going on in the world around. Go to some churches and you would think that the crooked roads were already straight and the rough places were already smooth. Preachers try to dodge the tragic realities of the world in which we live.
Merton’s concern with hope, optimism and victory that is bound up with conflict, with anguish, and with tragedy, is embodied in John the Baptist. John comes as the prophet, the spiritual leader, who is rooted in very earthy realities. John’s speaking of the truth brings hope and optimism and leads to his murder in a dungeon at the whim of a drunken despot. Read the story of John the Baptist’s ministry and it makes bleak reading, yet Merton reassures us, “Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen”.
Passing beyond tragedy to glory—that’s a real hope on a dull, damp December day.