As I prayed with our first reading this week from the prophet Baruch, I was reminded of seeing the movie Beautiful Boy recently. It’s a film adaptation of two memoirs, written by a father and son — David and Nic Sheff—about Nic’s addiction to crystal methamphetamine. The film provides us with a glimpse into the difficult and life-threatening journey of one living with the disease of addiction. It also shows the reality of addiction as a disease that affects everyone in the addict’s life, especially family and close friends.
It’s a reality I know too well. As a crystal meth addict in recovery myself, I’ve struggled to stay clean since I first became addicted about 10 years ago. As I watched the film, I found myself deeply moved and confronted by the similarities in my own journey, how the drug devastated my own life, sucked away any spiritual connection I once had, and wreaked havoc on those I love. It was hard to watch, but important for me to see.
Second Sunday of Advent (Cycle C)
In the previous chapter of Baruch, the city of Jerusalem speaks as a mourning mother to her children who are in exile, encouraging them. In the passage included in this week’s lectionary, Baruch sets a different tone, one of hope, telling Jerusalem to take off the robe of worry and mourning, and replace it with a robe of joy, beauty, and glory.
We read of a parent looking out on the city, looking for their lost children, seeing them, rejoicing that they have been found. They have returned, even though they went out by foot, led away from their family and friends, led astray by their enemies.
This of course is good news, for those of us who are parents, and for those of us that are children. Regardless of the details, most of us get lost at some point, led astray by our enemies and our demons. Advent and the coming season of Christmas is a time to come home, to find those we love standing upon the height, waiting for us to come out of the darkness, and return.
While we scurry with the busyness of these December days, Luke’s gospel reminds us of the preaching of John the Baptist from the wilderness calling us to reflect, prepare, and repent. There are varied definitions of the word repent, and it is often associated with seeking forgiveness for one’s sins. We may even think of boisterous and bombastic street preachers following us as we walk into a downtown department store or movie theater. However, just as much as we think of repentance as turning away from sin, we can also consider our act of repentance as an intentional turning toward God, toward new life. A new life free from the bondage of self, free from the shame that keeps us stuck in the messiness, liberated to not only be free, but to help others reach freedom.
Seasons make their demands. Advent says wait. It says prepare. It says repent.
Advent’s poster child isn’t the Baby Jesus—it’s John the Baptist. And on this Second Sunday of Advent he’s in a prison, a wretched hole in the ground, waiting for Jesus to come to his rescue. Just like you and me, sometimes: sitting in a hole of pain, suffering, anxiety, or worse, waiting for Jesus to come to our rescue.
In the tradition and history of Israel, the wilderness is the time of preparation, the place of testing and repentance. It is the time to travel light, stripped of excess baggage, vulnerable in emptiness. It is the place of powerlessness where we are fully and perpetually at the mercy of God.
The Jesuit priest Gregory Boyle wrote in his latest book Barking to the Choir:
During Advent, we are called to prepare the way…to ‘make straight the path’ and make smooth what is rocky. Our hardwiring is such that we hear these invitations as a demand to ‘straighten up’ or ‘get our act together.’ But it’s not we who needs changing—it’s our crooked path that needs to be smoothed…so we can be reached by God’s tenderness. One of the many impediments to hearing the only message God longs to communicate to us is our marriage to the pain we carry and the lament that accompanies it. With grace, we come to know that lament can’t get a foothold if gratitude gets there first.
And that is what the Canticle of Zechariah claims boldly, an oath sworn to our ancestors: “to set us free from the hands of our enemies, free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.”
 Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 18-19.