Getting in Character

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Second Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2023

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet … “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  (Mark 1:2-3)

 Here we are on Broadway, and I know that many of you have either enjoyed or are pursuing careers as actors and actresses.  Also at this time our cast of sixty is rehearsing, singing, and dancing its way toward this year’s Christmas Eve pageant.  Amidst all this talent I am humbled to remember my one and only flirtation with the stage.  I was in the fourth grade.  The school system had decreed that it was to be dental hygiene week.  In celebration, our student teacher, Miss Stokes (who was distractingly pretty), wrote a play for the 4th grade to perform at an assembly.  My role was that of a decayed tooth who had to be pulled and leave his friends.  When I landed the part, I thought the starring role was mine.  But as it turned out, the girl who portrayed the dentist extracted me from the stage early in the first scene.  That was it for me: no more openings, no more shows. 

My younger brother had better luck.  Throughout high school and college he tried out for and won a number of significant roles in the theater.  His first character portrayal was that of the doctor in Whose Life is it Anyway?  He brought to the role a stern, strident, unyielding presence.  And although my credibility as a theater critic is not high, I was quite impressed.  His next performance was that of Captain Brackett in the musical South Pacific.  He brought to the role a stern, strident, unyielding presence.  And although my credibility as a theater critic is not high, I thought to myself “Hmm, this looks familiar.”  Then came his portrayals of John Proctor in The Crucible, and Dwight Babcock in Mame.  To these roles he brought a stern, strident, unyielding presence.  Perhaps the problem was of my own perception.  Perhaps it was because I knew my brother too well, but it seemed to me that he was playing the same character no matter what costume he wore, no matter what lines he spoke. 

One day in the spirit of helpfulness I broached the subject of his need to take more of the character into himself: let the character shape you as much as you shape the character.  Get yourself more out of the way.  To these brotherly criticisms he responded by saying that since it wasn’t dental hygiene week I ought to consider shutting my mouth.  A rather stern, strident, and unyielding answer, don’t you think?

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  What do these familiar words mean?  We hear them often during the season of Advent.  Nearly three-hundred years ago George Frederic Handel set them to music, as countless others have done since.  Two-thousand years ago John the Baptist spoke them in the wilderness of Judea, and on the banks of the Jordan River.  But even then the words were not new.  The people to whom John spoke had heard them before many times.  They were from their Scriptures.  They were read in the synagogue.  But what did these familiar words mean?

Some five-hundred years before John, Isaiah the prophet first spoke these words.  Isaiah preached good news to the people in exile.  The Jews were captives in Babylon.  The Babylonians had conquered them and carried them away from Jerusalem.  For decades now they had languished in Babylonian internment camps, all the while mourning their separation from Jerusalem. How could they play the role of God’s people if they didn’t live in God’s city?  How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land (Psalm 137)?  By the waters of Babylon they sat down and wept: their costumes didn’t fit, the props were all wrong, the scenery wasn’t right.  Then came Isaiah speaking words of comfort:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God (Isaiah 40).

 For the Jews, Isaiah’s words meant that they would be going home.  The way they would have to travel from Babylon to Jerusalem was long and treacherous: straight across was 800 miles of desert, the more hospitable route was well over a thousand miles.  Mountains, valleys, rough places and rough people would block their way.  But God himself was going to prepare the way.  God brought the Jews home again to Jerusalem.  When they arrived they found the city in ruins.  The Temple was destroyed, but they were home.  Two-thousand five-hundred years ago, that was the meaning of these words.  The joy of the redeemed exiles, however, was short-lived.  The problem was this: Jerusalem turned out to be not at all the heaven on earth they remembered.  Although they were playing the role of God’s people in God’s city again – although they were in the right place, wore the right costumes, and spoke the right lines – they discovered themselves to be the same old characters they had been in exile.  Those who felt distant from God in Babylon still felt distant from God in Jerusalem.  “Hmm,” they must have thought, “this feels familiar.”  A change of scenery wasn’t the answer. 

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth. 

When John the Baptist spoke these words again five-hundred years after Isaiah, he brought a stern, strident, unyielding presence to the role of a prophet.  His were not words of comfort.  The great distance he spoke of was not that between Babylon and Jerusalem.  It was the distance between our thoughts and God’s thoughts, between our ways and God’s ways.  The mountains, valleys, and rough places he referred to were not that of any outward landscape, but rather the untamed geography of the inner life.  John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  That’s a fancy way of talking about a change of character, not a change of scenery.  Our opening hymn today says it well:

Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within.
And let each heart prepare a home
where such a mighty guest may come.

Make straight the way for God within.  A phrase I heard long ago speaks of a concept I’ve wrestled with ever since.  It goes something like this: the Christian journey is not so much a matter of getting people into heaven later on, as it is getting heaven into people now.  Once again: not people into heaven, but heaven into people.  How in the world does heaven get into us?  How in the world can heaven break through the cynical, glum, pessimistic, outraged personas of our culture today?  Well, this is a journey that God makes.  Now to say that God makes the journey may strike you as a surprise.  Popular spirituality urges me to concentrate on my spiritual journey, and you yours.  We are all busy wanting out of Babylon and longing for Jerusalem.  But the one on the spiritual journey is God.  God’s destination is your inner depths, and mine — your heart and mine.  Let every heart prepare a home where such a mighty guest may come.  Prepare ye the way of the Lord!

These ancient, familiar words present a challenge to me that I suspect is much like the challenge before an actor or actress portraying a character.  To prepare the way of the Lord is to learn a character – the character of Christ.  If you have ever been on stage or screen you know that to a great extent you have to get yourself out of the way.  Not every mountain and valley and rough place of your personality is fit for the part you are playing.  It is a matter of letting the character shape you as much as you shaping the character.  It is an integration of persons in which neither is lost totally in the other.  Taking on the role of Jesus is what St. Paul meant when he talked about “putting on Christ” (Romans 13:14), and “having the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16), and Christ “being formed in us” (Galatians 4:19).  We heard the call to put on Christ in the Collect of the Day last week, when we prayed that God would “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor or light …”  We hear the call to become Jesus in two of our Eucharistic Prayers, when we pray to God that we may be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him. 

Prepare ye the way of the Lord!  Put on Christ.  Get into character.  Remember that we are each learning and acting the character of Christ while on the stage of this mortal life.  We are his ambassadors, we are representing him to the world.  Stage directors will tell their performers to stay in character no matter what happens, no matter what props fall over, or what lines are flubbed, or even if a cell phone rings in the audience. The question is, will you stay in character?  When the pressures of life mount and your temper wears thin, will you stay in the character of Christ?  When you face major decisions about money and morals, will you stay in the character of Christ?  When you’ve heard an irresistible piece of gossip at a Christmas party, and now have the chance to repeat it, will you break character with Christ, or will you consider shutting your mouth?  When depression is deep and darkness seems all around you, will you stay in the character of Christ and trust in the Lord one day at a time, or will you give in to despair? 

Will you stay in the character of Christ?  It sounds like an impossible role to play, a task even more difficult than traveling from Babylon to Jerusalem.  But remember, God is the one on the move toward us.  God is the one who first gives himself to us, and rescues us from exile.  God in Christ has acted to take our nature upon himself – to play our role, to stand in our place.  And here I can only say what I have found to be true: that the more I am willing to get myself out of the way, and let the character of Christ shape me, rather than vise-versa, the more I know the Spirit of God alive in me.  Trust me, often I am not very good at getting or staying in the character of Jesus.  But the more I take on the role of Christ, the more his character becomes part of my nature.  And the more his character becomes part of my nature, the more I realize that God is working infinitely harder than I ever could in the transformation of my character.  God has begun a good work within each of us, and will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ.  God is planning to give us the resurrected life of Jesus, so that we might say, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Once again, let me say that my credibility as a theater critic is not all that high.  It is not even dental hygiene week.  But we are on Broadway, and it is Advent.  So I tell you: Take the character of Christ into yourself.  Get yourself out of the way, and put on Christ.  Receive his body and blood.  Let his living Spirit fill you, forgive you, heal you, and call you into service.  Let him shape you.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God. 

Let them see it in you, and let them see it in me.