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Speaking to the Soul: Human or Heavenly?

Speaking to the Soul: Human or Heavenly?

Week of Advent 1, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 1, 2, 3 (morning) // 4, 7 (evening)

Isaiah 1:10-20

1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Luke 20:1-8

On this first Monday of Advent, we take one step closer to celebrating the mystery of Christ’s origins, human and heavenly. Today’s gospel gives us some guidance as we approach this mystery. It warns us against “either-or” thinking and against the urge to protect ourselves from our own mistakes or from others’ anger when we come to our own convictions about Christ.

The religious leaders in today’s gospel fall into all of these traps and so miss out on the truths that Christ seeks to communicate. These leaders instead only want to see Jesus’s credentials for teaching and leadership. They demand, “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?” Instead of giving them an answer, Jesus asks them a question of his own. Their response to this question will allow Jesus to probe whether they’re open to his identity and ministry. The question is fairly straightforward: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?”

The way that these religious leaders wrestle with this question shows that they’re unprepared for the mystery of Christ. First of all, they accept the terms and categories of the question, believing that it has only two answers: Either the baptism of John comes from heaven, or it comes from a human origin. Furthermore, these elders are more concerned with personal reputation and popular opinion than with truth. They calculate that if they answer “from heaven,” Jesus will ask why they didn’t believe in John’s witness in the first place. They’ll have to acknowledge that they were wrong. And if they say, “of human origin,” they’ll anger the people who believe John was a prophet. No matter how they answer, these leaders will lose some of their status.

So, these religious leaders settle for something far less than the paradoxical truths taught by Christ, answering simply “that they did not know.” They settle for either-or thinking about “heavenly” and “human,” they protect their reputations as religious leaders who are always right, and they avoid provoking people who think differently than they do. But they also prove themselves unready for Christ’s teaching. Because they won’t attempt an answer to the question he posed to them, he says, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.” Thus, the religious leaders close themselves off to the teaching and personhood of Christ, who confounds limited categories and who confers true authority through humility.

As we ourselves prepare to behold the mystery of the Incarnation, we would do well to relinquish our own either-or thinking, our concern to protect our rightness, and our fear of what others will think of our answers to difficult questions. We’ll be able to offer Christ something much more than a fearful and timid, “I don’t know.” Even if our answers remain uncertain and unresolved, if we wrestle with questions creatively, honestly, and fearlessly, we’ll be much more prepared to greet Christ this year.

Lora Walsh blogs about the Daily Office readings at A Daily Scandal. She serves as Priest Associate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and assists with adult formation and campus ministry at St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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