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Jeffrey EssmannDecember 02, 2019
Photo by ervin cividini on Unsplash

Advent is possessed of a marvelous strangeness. We move through its purple days lighting candles against a darkening world, singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” which tells us to rejoice but sounds like a dirge. And we listen to those peculiar poets, the prophets. They pop up, of course, throughout the year, but at Advent, they take center stage: John the Baptist announcing the “Spirit and fire,” Isaiah awaiting “a great light.” The real strangeness of Advent is the strangeness of the prophetic voice, a voice that flutters between warning and consolation, the present and the future, cause and effect. It is a voice that echoes in the sacred silence at the very heart of us, and Advent is a season of stillness so that we may pick up the resonance of—and be drawn to God by—that echo.

While prophets, in general, seemed to be attention-grabbers, Jesus pointed out that they went unrecognized in their hometown. This implies that we may, throughout our lives, have encountered prophets unaware, those people who through gentleness or annoyance (or some combination of the two) called us to who we really are and pointed to where we were supposed to go—people like our parents. The Bible is rife with parents whose intimacy with God propelled their children into lives of holiness and extraordinary witness: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the mother of the Maccabean martyrs, the mother of the Sons of Zebedee. Mary was a prophet at the wedding at Cana when she told Jesus they had run out of wine. Her prophecy: “Your private life is over. It’s time to shine.”

The real strangeness of Advent is the strangeness of the prophetic voice, a voice that flutters between warning and consolation, the present and the future.

My father was an unlikely prophet—perhaps, per the tradition, even a reluctant one. He was not a particularly religious man and not a particularly talkative one. But prophets are not necessarily garrulous. (Yes, Isaiah goes on for 66 chapters, but Obadiah is barely a couple of pages.) There was also a prophecy of symbolic acts—Jeremiah burying the loincloth, Ezekiel lying on his side for over a year—that constituted a kind of Bronze Age performance art. And while my father was certainly capable of the occasional diatribe, particularly during my teens as he saw me careening into the idolatries of the ’60s counterculture, his true prophecy was quiet, steady, performative, pointing me toward a kingdom that looked mysteriously like the Midwest.

Every summer he would take the family for a week or two to a lakeside cottage in northern Wisconsin, my first experiences of the beauty of nature and of the mystery behind that beauty. A few hours into the drive north, the tree ratio would shift from deciduous to conifer, and the air took on the clean mint of endless evergreens. After supper, he and Mom would sit down by the lake and watch the sun go down, while my brother and I prowled the patches of birch along the shore trying to catch the small frogs that came out only at dusk. Every vacation included a visit to a state park and a hike through deep forest, where I first sensed that there was something in the world, in life, that was utterly nameless and inexpressibly good.

It was also at the lake that my father taught me silence. Some mornings after breakfast, he would tell me to get my fishing pole and meet him down at the pier. As he rowed us out onto the lake and I began chattering in excitement, he would remind me that fishing was essentially a quiet activity: “You don’t want to scare the fish.” 

Those moments of sitting quietly in the presence of a loving father taught me just about everything I needed to know about prayer, about heaven.

We baited our hooks and pursued our perch in near monastic silence. I might occasionally have a question (Why do loons sound so funny?); he might share some piece of fishing history (a northern pike he caught before I was born). But, in general, we were silent—silent and happy. I watched my bobber bounce and totter in the morning sun; heard a tiny errant wave lap the side of the boat. And I adored my father. Those moments of sitting quietly in the presence of a loving father taught me just about everything I needed to know about prayer, about heaven. Today, whatever minor ecstasies I may enjoy are redolent of freshwater lake and worms.

In the fullness of time, I was turned over to a community of prophetesses for my formal education: the School Sisters of Notre Dame. While we usually associate prophecy with individuals, there were in Old Testament times also prophetic communities, either ongoing or ad hoc. (At one point during the 40 years in the desert, God poured out the prophesying spirit not only on Moses but on 70 Israelite elders—but only for a short time). But, solo or communal, the prophetic charism was the same: prompted by an intense experience of the living God, to call the people back to covenant and form them into a community worthy of his children. The S.S.N.D.s, in the desert of suburban Milwaukee, kept their eye on the prize. With a vision as keen as Isaiah’s, they saw the future—and it was Catholic. 

The sisters encompassed the full range of prophetic temperament. Sister Julita in first grade was all consolation, taking clear delight in showing us the love of God; Sister Gemma in fourth leaned more toward his wrath. While the sisters were unrelenting in their focus on the good and the true, they nonetheless never forsook the beautiful. It was the “art nun” who first introduced me to Cézanne (and, by extension, the glories of color); a group of sisters doing a choral reading of “Leaves of Grass” that turned me on to Walt Whitman. And, in the most traditional, predictive sense of prophecy, it was my sixth-grade nun who first told me I was going to be a writer. Most important of all, they introduced me to a God still active in the world through his children. The last time I saw my seventh-grade teacher was in a photo on the front page of the archdiocesan newspaper, arm-in-arm with other Catholic religious at the front line of a civil rights demonstration.

We live in a world in which prophecy has been swamped by prediction: the weather, elections, the stock market. But John the Baptist did not conduct polls; Isaiah’s accuracy did not have a margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points. Prophets simply tell the truth. And we focus on them during Advent because it is the season leading up to the greatest truth of all: God is with us. He is here, now. We are saved. It is an extraordinary message that all of us utterly ordinary Christians—parents, teachers, parishioners, pals—are supposed to pass along. At baptism we were anointed to be prophets to one another and to the world, to bear witness to the great light, to burn with the Spirit and fire and to echo the voice of God at the heart of us. And yes, we may go unnoticed in our hometowns; but if we are lucky, we might raise an eyebrow in the kingdom of God.

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