Karen was a neighborhood ghost. Rather than walking the main thoroughfares, her tall lean body seemed to float through tight alleyways, along the side streets and over the cracked concrete of crooked avenues. The contrast of her fiery red hair flowing across the pasty skin of her oft-distressed face presented her more as a forlorn phantasm than anything real, truly alive or approachable.
Everyone knew of Karen, but few actually knew her.
She and I would exchange pleasantries during our rare encounters, or, at least I would be pleasant; I’m not sure Karen was able. Instead, she would offer a somber “thank you” before floating back into the alleyways and broken streets.
Karen’s expressions of thanks were not related to any practical aid I had given her, besides simply allowing her the space to scream. She would occasionally descend the little stairwell at the back end of our church. This space served as a haven for others in the neighborhood. It provided asylum for suburban addicts hiding out after drugs deals had taken violent twists. Homeless men and women sometimes found the stairwell to be a great place for napping, while others used it as the nearest alternative to a public restroom.
For Karen, the stairwell was her wilderness sanctuary, right in the heart of the merciless city. There, she found the space and solace to let loose and cry out with a loud voice. The oppressive thumb of drug addiction, abuse, pain and poverty could not find her in that place.
At the landing of that smelly little stairway, Karen embraced Marvin Gaye’s sentiments in the 1971 classic ‘Inner City Blues,’ “Make me want to holler, the way they do my life.” There, she accessed sacred moments of release and holy encounters with the only God she could believe in, the one who listened to ghosts screaming in stairwells.
John the Baptist was no ghost. Instead, he was a firebrand, and unlike the floating Karen, John stood flatfooted, proclaiming the message of repentance, righteousness and justice. In his desert context there were no alleyways or broken streets, just a straight highway of holiness traveled by the penitent.
Perhaps though, despite John’s fiery polemics, he was driven to the wilderness by abusive factors like those that moved Karen downward to the dirty little stairwell. The oppressive thumb of imperial tyranny, injustice and iniquity, along with the impotent and hypocritical practices of religious establishments, certainly pressed down on the locust-eating prophet.
I imagine John was the type to holler. Verse 3 of today’s Gospel text identifies him as “a voice crying in the wilderness.” The Greek boaō, rendered “crying” in the text, captures the idea of one shouting out for help amid tumult. And while we generally anticipate the advent with joyous melodies and gleeful songs, perhaps the cacophony of screams from the wildernesses of dirty stairwells, wastelands, refugee camps, solitary confinement cells and immigrant detention centers, the places populated by those seeking sanctuary from the weight of oppressive thumbs, is the most appropriate noise awaiting the incarnation.
The grace of God, the same grace that effected the incarnation, is a wild grace, showing up in the most unexpected places and in the most intrusive ways. If we are not too disquieted by the screams and hollers emanating from the depths of the wilderness, perhaps we will encounter the full abundance of this grace. Sacred encounters with the divine await us in noise of hollering prophets, distressed drug addicts and homeless families who don’t have a place to lay their heads. These cries are truly the hymns of Advent, calling out for salvation from what is but shouldn’t be.
Are you willing to listen?