When my daughter, Lisa, was about 13 or 14, we drove to Chicago to visit my sister Frances. Traveling across northern Indiana on I-90, we passed mile after mile of summer corn fields. At some point, Lisa said to me, “If you say look at all that corn one more time, …” I don’t tell you this to introduce some story about Lisa, Chicago, Frances, Indiana, or corn fields. I want to tell you that Advent is the time of the extravagant metaphor.
The metaphors in the readings for the Advent liturgy, especially those from Isaiah, are talking about lions lying down with lambs, bears grazing with farm animals, little children playing on top of poisonous snakes lairs, and – yes – mountains being flattened and valleys being filled in. A good poet – like Isaiah – chooses figures of speech that will appeal to his readership. Since the Jews of Isaiah’s time lived in an agrarian society where most travel and transportation was by foot, human or animal, he selected metaphors that fit their life. He told them that they would not have to worry about predators and that farming and transporting their goods to market would be simplified.
At least to me, flattening mountains and filling in valleys sounds a little like turning the Adirondacks into northern Indiana. But to the Jewish farmer who had to plow his fields by walking behind a pair of oxen, that sounded great. And to the pilgrim who at least once a year had to walk – say from Nazareth – to Jerusalem pretty much uphill all the way, they could shout Alleluia.
So if the extravagant metaphors don’t really appeal to you, maybe it is time to turn to the prose explanations. Perhaps the first line of the Gospels ever written was the first line of Mark’s Gospel. I can picture him sitting down with a blank roll of papyrus and a sharp writing stick in his hands thinking, “How should I begin?” Then he started writing, “The beginning of the good news (or gospel) of Jesus Christ Son of God.”
That about says it all, doesn’t it? Who needs metaphors? There is this person, Jesus. Now, Jesus was a very common name among Jews of the time. But this Jesus was special in at least two ways. First, he was the Son of God. The Hebrew scriptures had spoken of a Messiah who was son of man. But this was the Son of God and he was “Christ.” This term, meaning “anointed,” denoted the long awaited Messiah who was to be sent by God for the ransom of the Jews and ultimately of all nations. And this was “good news.” Mark did not use some sparkling phrase like “fantastic revelation.” The New Testament Greek uses the ordinary word for “news” and adds a prefix that means “good.” Mark was a plain man, to the point, and he only had so much papyrus.
Matthew and Luke also tell this story in simple prose. Matthew says, “She (Mary) bore a son, whom he (Joseph) named Jesus.” Mt 1:25 Luke says with a little more detail, “she (Mary) gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Lk 2:7. Simple news about simple people, but “good,” overwhelmingly good. Sorry I could not restrain myself.
Mark’s simple message of Good News makes me wonder if I always think of my religion as good news. I think of my younger days and ask myself whether I was taught to enjoy God’s good news. Did they actually teach me that the sign of a good Christian was a pretty constant feeling of guilt, or did I make that idea up of some undigested morsel of Christian truth? Did they actually teach me that my faith was made up of constant obedience to an unmanageable mass of petty rules, and, if so, how did I miss the lesson on the whole idea of Christian freedom?
Those questions are probably without answers, and I do not need to answer them now. Fast forward to today. There is good news of blind seeing, deaf hearing, lame leaping for joy, and captives finally free. (Metaphors from Isaiah that we all can still identify with.) The Adirondacks do not have to become Indiana, predators can continue to fulfill the place in nature that God gave them as long as we protect our children and pets. We have the best news, Mary bore a son, whom Joseph named Jesus and He is the Christ the Son of God.