Third Sunday in Advent
I have always loved the legend of how St. Francis taught the people of a small town to “feed their wolf.”
It is a strangely humorous saga with layer upon layer of metaphor and meaning. In a nutshell, the residents of this small town had a problem. Each morning when people woke up, they began to find the bloody remains of some of their townsfolk on the streets of their beautiful city. Since the people were very proud, they were convinced that “a stranger” passing through their town must have been responsible for these terrible crimes. Nevertheless, they began to lock their doors at night. When more deaths followed, the same denial was expressed over and over again that “no one in our town could be responsible for such things.”
Then, someone saw a wolf wandering the streets one night after everyone had retired; and the people realized that there was a wolf living in the dark woods on one side of town. Of course, this could not be “their” wolf; because they never asked the wolf to come to their town. So, immediately they began to find ways to get rid of the wolf.
After a number of futile attempts, the people got desperate enough to approach the holy man of Assisi who had a reputation for being able to talk to animals. St. Francis spoke to the wolf and gave the people what appeared to be some strange and, not entirely welcome, advice.
St. Francis told the people that they had to feed their wolf. At first, the people were not impressed with this suggestion and were, in fact, offended by the thought that this wolf somehow was their responsibility. They began to wonder why they had ever approached the holy man in the first place. And, then, something miraculous happened.
Bit by bit, people began to leave food out for the wolf as he prowled the streets of town. The violent deaths ceased and it was not long before every man, woman and child had learned how to “feed their wolf.” As a result, the people of town were transformed. They became more easy-going, less arrogant, and kinder human beings.
Not surprisingly, people in churches who hear this story usually exhibit a wide variety of reactions—a case of real life mirroring a parable. Some are immediately amused by the story and immediately identify with the proud people of the town. They recognize the haughtiness in us that often leads us to “blame it on strangers” when something goes wrong. The denial and avoidance of the townsfolk are all too familiar emotions to many of us. In laughing at the people of this town as we come to terms with our wolf, we realize that we ourselves can find healing and freedom by embracing the negative aspects of ourselves, our community, and our church—that part of the story that is symbolized by the wonderfully vague image of “the wolf.”
Other people, however, just don’t get it. Or worse, they are offended by the suggestion of a self-identity that incorporates rather than excludes our “wolves.”
Sometimes we decline the invitation to befriend and feed that which we fear most in ourselves and in each other and we miss the opportunity to come to a new and healthier understanding of who we are.
On this third Sunday of Advent, traditionally called gaudete (or Joy) Sunday, the church asks us to consider some equally strange advice from scripture. On the one hand Paul tells the folks at Philippi to “Rejoice in the Lord always . . .”
And Zephaniah’s message is also to “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Now that sounds like what this season of Yuletide is supposed to be about – good cheer and holiday exuberance and all that. But, when we get to the gospel for this week, John the Baptist is doing what John the Baptist does best – calling us to task:
“Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” John says.
And once again we are reminded that the God who is coming to us in this season is not the Santa Claus who “knows whether you are naughty or nice” but Jesus, God with us, the one who demands that we turn our lives around and follow him.
You see, that’s the trouble with listening to the Bible. Instead of finding “joy” through a “positive” psychological assessment of ourselves or the mindless advice to “Be Happy” no matter what is happening, instead, if we really read the Bible for what it says, we often find that we are told that joy is what happens when we respond to that which God demands of us; and what God demands, in the words of John the Baptist, is “repentance” or, in other words, a change of heart. What the gospel is trying to do for us today is to release us from the counterfeit “joy” of popping another pill or turning up the holiday music CD. Real “joy” is what happens when we a) “confront” our shortcomings, when we b) acknowledge who we really are and “face up” to our wolves, and when c) we “turn toward” God’s love for guidance.
I have a story from my own teen years that exemplifies this. When I was in high-school, I sang in choir with a friend of mine named Dan Trebe. Dan sang tenor along with me. I liked Dan. He was one of my best friends.
Now, one of the worst things that could happen to you in choir was to get caught not knowing your music. You know, trying to sing really quietly when you really don’t know the music—letting the others in your section carry you along?
Well, one day, our director, Mr. Stobie, an imposing man who didn’t kid around, could tell from the first note of the piece we were singing that Dan did not know his music, so he stopped the group and asked Dan to sing the first verse on his own. Everybody knew in an instant that Dan didn’t know his music. Dan had not practiced the week before and just was not prepared. There was no way to hide it. So when old Mr. Stobie stopped the choir and asked Dan to sing the first verse on his own, we all knew that he knew that he couldn’t and we knew from the look on Dan’s face that Dan knew that he knew and he knew that we knew. So everyone, especially Mr. Stobie, knew that Dan was not prepared. Mr. Stobie had caught Dan red-handed. Pure guilt was written all over Dan’s face.
But, you see, Dan was a bit of a character, known for using his wits to get out of tight situations; and we all were waiting to see what he was going to do to get out of this one. Dan just sat there for a moment with a kind of frozen look on his face. Then he looked Mr. Stobie straight in the eyes and said something we never expected him to say: “Sir, I forgot to practice this week. It was very stupid of me. I’m very sorry. Please forgive me.” And he said it with a straight face. Cool as a cucumber. With all the sincerity of Job.
I can still remember the look on Mr. Stobie’s face. He had had a lot of years under his belt catching students red-handed; and his withering looks and angry chastisements were the stuff of legend around Menlo-Atherton High. “Crap! People,” he would say, “Get your act together.” But, it was obvious that this time, Mr. Stobie had been completely thrown by Dan’s response. He just sat there on his stool, apparently too stunned to speak. Then, he turned away from Dan and looked at the rest of us and said with half a grin on his face, “How do you get mad at somebody who says something like that!?”
W.H. Auden once wrote,
Follow, poet, follow right
to the bottom of the night.
With your unconstraining voice
still persuade us to rejoice;
with the farming of a verse
make a vineyard of the curse.
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress.
In the deserts of the heart
let the healing fountain start.
In the prison of our days
teach the free man how to praise.
The Good News of Advent is that God is coming to us, not to destroy us but to refine us, to help us to become what we were meant to be. It is God’s great gift to us: to own up to what we have been and done, to express our sorrow, and to be relieved of the burden of having to think that we are “right” or “perfect” all of the time.
May we all be filled with “the freedom” of knowing that we are not, and “the joy” of knowing that we don’t have to be! Praise God! AMEN.