Advent and the Fat Lady
December 5, 2004
“It’s not over until the fat lady sings.” As unlikely as it may seem, this saying directly relates to the season of Advent, and to a spiritual attitude in which we should try to live each day of our lives. The saying is often attributed incorrectly to Yogi Berra, the manager of the New York Yankees. He probably receives credit because another of his sayings is close to it: “It’s not over until it’s over.”
Both of these sayings point to a truth: you are not going to know who wins the ball game until the last out is made.
The saying about the fat lady does not originate in baseball. The full saying reveals its origin: “the opera is not over until the fat lady sings”. It reflects the common practice in classical opera that no matter what kind of twists or turns there are in the plot, the last scene is reserved to the soprano—usually a hefty woman of some presence who closes the opera with a dramatic aria. Therefore, what the saying tells us is that no matter how the story seems to be going, wait! There is still time. The opera is not over until the fat lady sings.
Now what does this have to do with Advent? Actually, quite a bit. Advent is about waiting. This is what the readings today tell us. We are waiting for the Kingdom of God—a kingdom which Isaiah describes in today’s first reading as a kingdom on God’s holy mountain—a kingdom which is announced by a messiah which John the Baptist proclaims in the desert in the wilderness.
Advent is about waiting, and so is life. Jesus has revealed to us a God who saves us, a God who will not abandon us, a God that has promised us life. But the promises of God are not accomplished in a day. Thus the stance for every believer each day of life, is to wait: to wait for God to act, to wait for God to fulfill God’s promises.
This is why it is such a mistake, such a tragedy, when we conclude that things are finished, when we decide that we have come to the end of the line, when we decide that there is nothing more to wait for. Because if we conclude that things are ended before God has finished, then we rob ourselves of hope, and we rob ourselves of life.
Now when can we choose such false conclusions? It usually happens in the midst of heartache or disappointment. When we learn that a son or daughter is addicted to drugs, when we are told we cannot conceive a child, when we find that we have to face divorce or the rejection of someone we love, when we have to mourn someone that we have lost in death, when we lose our job, when the diagnosis comes to us that it is cancer—in these moments of crisis, we are tempted to call the game, to throw in the towel, to conclude that things are over.
But the Christian is called not to give up but to wait, because only God can say when the story is finished.
This attitude of waiting is really the fundamental stance of the believer. It applies not only to the crises of our lives, but also the every day disappointments. When someone forgets our birthday, when our back begins to ache, when our children cannot come home for Christmas, it is easy to conclude that we should just write it off life as a loss and give in to sadness. But the gospel then calls us instead to wait, to see what God will do next. Because as long as there is another scene, anything can happen. As long as God still has room to act, there is hope.
So the next time you have to face a major crisis, or a small disappointment, don’t throw in the towel. Don’t give up. Wait! Watch what will happen next. We believe that God is still at work, so give God time to act. Don’t presume to conclude that your life is a tragedy. God has promised you a happy ending. It is not over until the fat lady sings, and God is the only one who can tell her when to take the stage. Until that final curtain falls, any good thing can still happen.
Following Christ Today
December 9, 2007
Many years ago when I was still in Seminary training, we were required to spend a semester in jail ministry. It was a very positive experience. Once a week we would go and hold a prayer service for the inmates. Then we would spend some time afterwards sharing coffee and talking with them. But before I began that semester, I remember asking one of the older seminarians who had already completed this phase of training, what his experience of it was. He said: “Oh it’s challenging, but quite important. I think you’ll learn a lot from it.” Then he looked at me and said, “But get ready for a lot of old altar servers.”
Now, I did not know what he meant by that comment. But I discovered as I became involved in the ministry, that a remarkable number of the inmates (perhaps one out of every three) would tell me, “Father, I used to be an altar server.” Now this perplexed me and I tried to explain it. I wondered whether there was a connection between being an altar server when you were young and ending up in prison. I want to assure our altar servers here today that I have not been able to substantiate that connection.
But I was able to conclude that either the inmates were trying to hustle me and impress me with their connection to the church or they were sincerely sharing with me a moment of their life when they felt close to God. In time I began to pray that they were hustling me, because how sad would it be that these men, many in their fifties and sixties, would have to go all the way back to their childhood to locate a moment when they felt they were serving God.
One of the lessons that I learned from that semester was this: The important question is not what have we done for God? The important question is what have we done for God lately? That seems to be the issue that John the Baptist has in today’s gospel. When some of the religious leaders come for baptism, he insists that they must demonstrate their goodness by their actions. He does not want them to presume their holiness by saying that they have Abraham as their ancestor. Now, having Abraham as your ancestor was a good thing and John the Baptist certainly respected it. But he insisted that their pedigree be accompanied with action. Or to put it in other terms, what had they done for God lately?
To be a follower of Jesus is not simply to collect a couple actions of faith and love and then move on to other things. To follow Jesus is a way of life. It is not enough to garner together a couple religious experiences that you can point to when the topic comes up in conversation. Being a disciple is living today and every day as a person who is trying to build the Kingdom of God. That is why Jesus asks us to follow him daily. He says, “I know that last Christmas you were very generous with that family that was experiencing financial difficulty. But that was a year ago and there are people still struggling. I am counting on you to be a sign of my love. I know that you told your wife that you loved her and were thankful for her on her anniversary, but that was months ago. Have you told her that recently? I know that you have stood up for someone who was being ridiculed at school or at work, and I was proud when you did that. But that was some time ago and they are still people being abused today.” Each day Jesus says, “I am proud of the ways that you have acted in service, in justice, and love to others, but I need that to continue. What have you done for me lately?”
Now that question of Christ can seem demanding and even unreasonable. But I assure you, it is not Christ’s intention to shame us or to place heavy obligations upon us. For the truth is that doing what Christ asks us to do, following his will, is the best thing that we can do for ourselves. There is no deeper satisfaction than knowing that we have served as he has asked us to serve, that we have forgiven as he has asked us to forgive, that we have loved as he has asked us to love. Doing his will is the greatest joy we can achieve. He asks us to do his will, not for his benefit, and not only for the benefit of others, but for ourselves. We find joy in his commands. That is why it is important that we do not rest on our laurels. We cannot be content because once we were an altar server or once we sacrificed for the sake of some one else. Christ is counting on us today and every day, to build his kingdom, to be people of service, justice, and love. That is what he asks. That is what he commands. We would do well to follow his commands, for doing his will brings us lasting joy. His question, “What have you done for me lately,” is really only another way of asking, “What have you recently done for yourself?”
The Diet of the Baptist
December 4 -5, 2010
We know a good number of things about John the Baptist. He was the agent of God. He proclaimed a baptism of repentance. He prepared the way of the Lord. But, in today’s gospel we learn another concrete thing about John the Baptist. And, it is this: John the Baptist was no gourmet. He followed a diet that would make you choke—locusts and wild honey. Now what is it about this strange menu? I know that food was not in great supply in the wilderness, but with a little forethought, John could have packed a lunch.
Why is it that he ate these particular foods? And why is it that the scriptures are very concerned to point this out to us? Well there is nothing in the scriptures by accident. So I suggest to you that if we spend a little time thinking about John’s diet, we will not only learn more about him, but also about ourselves as well.
Both locusts and honey have a history of meaning within the bible. They stand for certain things. Locusts are associated with plagues. One of the nine plagues of Egypt was a plague of locusts. And the prophet Joel foretells of coming plague of locusts to Israel. So biblically speaking, locusts have a negative connotation. They represent ruin, upheaval, loss and pain. The notable thing about John the Baptist is that he does not flee from locusts. He eats them! John’s eating of locusts is a symbol for us to admit the evils that befall us in life. All too often when an evil thing happens to us, we deny it. “I’m OK. I’m not upset. I’m not hurt. I don’t care.” But, by denying the evil things that happen to us, we actually intensify them. If we try to flee from pain and discouragement, it follows us, and eventually it wears us out and lessens our life.
John the Baptist calls us to honesty. Are you dismayed? Admit it. Are you hurt? Claim it. Have you lost someone you love? Begin to grieve. Take the locust and swallow it down.
But, locusts in themselves do not a complete meal make. That’s why John also eats honey. Honey has its own meaning in the bible. Honey is the flavor of God’s word. God gives Ezekiel a scroll with the word of God written on it and tells Ezekiel to eat it. When the prophet eats it, it is as sweet as honey. The Psalmist tells us that God’s word, God’s law, is like honey on the tongue. So, honey is a symbol for our faith, for the sweetness of belief, a belief that God is real, that God can be trusted, that God is both our savior and our healer. It is only through the sweetness of God’s presence that we can heal and we can hope.
Now the important thing about the diet of John the Baptist is that it was composed of both locusts and honey—both honesty and faith. Both of those foods were necessary for a complete meal. If we try to live our lives only with honesty, it is not enough. It is a good thing to admit that I am hurt, I am dismayed, I am in need. But, that only takes us so far. With nothing else it can lead to discouragement. We need to turn to the sweetness of God’s presence and claim the God who is with us, so that we can live the future with hope.
On the other hand, a life that only has faith is not enough. It is a beautiful thing to believe that God is real, that God is with us, that God will save us. But, if we do not claim our own brokenness, our own discouragement, our own need, we do not know who we are. It is only when we can admit how much we need God’s presence that we can open ourselves to God’s saving grace.
So one way to look at today’s gospel is to see it as an invitation to adopt the diet of John the Baptist. But, it is important that we adopt all of it. Are you discouraged? Are you hurt? Are you grieving? Then, claim it, admit it, swallow it down. Say, yes, this is the person that I am. But, then turn to the sweetness of God’s presence, for it is that presence that will encourage you and heal you.
When evil strikes us, do not deny it, do not run away. Like John the Baptist eating locusts, take it in. But, then be sure to mix it with faith. Loss and pain cannot be carried without God’s presence. Locusts cannot be digested without the honey of God’s word.