Friday, December 07, 2007

So shrill the cry

Advent always presents a paradox for me. Even though I participate in the annual Advent humbug, criticizing the consumerist and materialistic impulses of our culture at this time of year, I also admit I get tired of those voices who want to claim they know that the real meaning of the season contradicts with our usual Christmas preparations. It almost seems that each year these voices grow a little louder. It has gone past the whole giving vs. receiving debate. They call for a simpler holiday altogether; they want less focus on spending and greater emphasis on building relationships with loved ones--or at least a renewed commitment to justice issues, like buying toys for needy children or donating a pig to a slum in Haiti.

To some degree those of us in that anti-consumer Christmas crowd are like the Pharisees and Saduccees who come to the Jordan riverbank seeking John's baptism. We are drawn there not so much because we whole-heartedly want to change our society's self-centered ways, but because we sense, deep down inside, that there might be something to his message. Something about the shrill sounds of John's frustration with the status quo reverberates within us and we think, for a second, there might just be a way to change it. Amidst all the shopping and decorating and grimacing about it all, we wonder if John might be onto something when he tells us that repenting is worthwhile. Something about the possibility of real change--within ourselves, within the world--causes us to stop and listen, if only for a few minutes.

A lot of people say "Jesus is the reason for the season," but I ask: What would Christmas be without John the Baptist? What would the celebration of God's grace in Jesus be without an iconoclast to shake us up a little beforehand, to shake us out of our yearly rituals and annual efforts to "do good"? We brood of vipers! We need this fiery, unpleasant dimension to the holiday in order to remind us that, left to our own devices, we will seek out and create our meanings for life, just as we always find our own "truer" meanings for the yuletide hoopla.

John's message was one of repentance. Repentance, very simply put, means to change direction, to turn around. Perhaps, on our part, the greater act of Christmas has nothing to do with giving or receiving, of looking past all the tinsel and toys to uncover some kernel of altruistic love. The more significant action is to repent. To be sure, God does give to us graciously, and we are urged to be givers, as well. However, repentance is where that must begin, and turning around, hearing the still shrill voice of change, is the ultimate life-giving Christmas activity. We can only figure out the "reason for the season" once we have first learned to open our inward-looking eyes and see what John the Baptist sees. He sees a world in desperate need of humility. He sees a world crying for a better system of peace and justice. He sees a creation that is broken more than it realizes and far more than it wants to admit. Yet he also sees its healing. John sees and foretells creation's promised healing, and he bids us to lay down our pretensiousness and turn around and receive it with him.

Savior of the nations, come; show the glory of the Son!
Every people stand in awe; praise the perfect Son of God.

God the Father is his source, back to God he runs his course;
Down to earth and hell descends, God's high throne he re-ascends.

Shining stable in the night, breathing vict'ry with your light;
Darkness cannot hide your flame, shining bright as Jesus' name.

(Ambrose of Milan)

(image above: "John the Baptist," African Mafa)