The season of Christmas is upon us! At what point did this realisation hit you?
- When you saw decorations going up in shopping centres – something which
always seems to happen way to early (ie. October)?
- When your family first rang you to organise a Christmas luncheon or dinner,
which never seems to happen early enough?
- When you received your first card. I got mine a week ago!
For me, it’s always the arrival of John the Baptist – that distinctive Christmas figure, whom the church, in its wisdom, seems determined to confront us with every year at about this time. That aggressive desert man with his animal-hair clothing and his bush-tucker diet and his own distinctive brand of Christmas cheer:
Bear fruits that befit repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Luke 3:8-9)
I’ve expanded on the John the Baptist Christmas merchandising range this year. The John the Baptist Christmas cards have proven to be staggeringly popular over the years. Each year people seem to think of new persons to send these to. This year I’ve added a ‘John the Baptist Christmas decoration’. It’s a project for the whole family – colour, glue, cut-out, stick-up, enjoy.
He sticks out like a sore thumb. John’s gaunt, haggard figure collides head on with the more familiar Yuletide figures – Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and the little drummer boy, let alone the fat, jolly elf in the red plush suit with a bag full of gifts for those who have too much already.
John’s appearance is distinctive. John was a man who had never cut his hair. At thirty-something years old, his hair would have been a tangled birds nest of knots and grease, falling down in tangled locks over the camel skins that he wore to keep him warm in the desert.
John’s smell would have been distinctive. This can’t be communicated very clearly through either the card or the decoration of course, but anyone who has a solid diet of locusts and wild honey could be expected to have a very distinctive odor about him.
Most significantly, John’s message was distinctive – blunt, aggressive, straightforward and honest. ‘Repent’ he says. ‘Come and take a cold dip in the Jordan and ask God to forgive your sins and prepare for the coming of the messiah.’
It’s hard to know where to put him on the Christmas tree, isn’t it? John has so little in common with the other figures that adorn our trees. Of course, John was distinctive in his own day too.
There weren’t many who looked or smelt or spoke like John did then – any more then than now. There were plenty of priests and clergy, but they all lived in the city, not out in the desert. They all dressed properly like priests. They weren’t dressed in camel’s hair and leather. These priests all ate decent meals, looked like decent people, and probably gave nice sermons.
Why then did so many people in Jerusalem travel into the desert (the hot, insecure, dangerous desert) to hear from a man whom most of us would normally go out of our way to avoid? There must have been a serious ‘ring of truth’ about his words.
It’s hard to be honest, particularly at this time of year.
This is the time of peace on earth and goodwill amongst all men isn’t it? Forget those wars that have been raging in Kosovo or Dilli or Belfast or wherever else this year. Let’s gloss it all over with some hearty words of good cheer.
I must admit that I find it sort of heartening when, about this time of year, those familiar TV faces – news-readers and TV show hosts – start appearing during the add breaks with images of tinsel and Christmas trees behind them, wishing each of us all the best etc. I’m not sure I want to face the truth here – that probably most of them don’t give a damn about any of us!
And if facing the truth about others is hard, then facing the truth about ourselves is harder. We want to believe the best about ourselves, and Charles Dickens is a tremendous help to us in this regard come Christmas time. We all remember the story of old Ebenezer Scrooge. He seemed like a callous, nasty old man, but deep down he was a good man, and it only took a bit of prompting from the old ‘Christmas Spirits’ to bring the best out of him.
Scrooges’ story is our story. We might have behaved like callous, uncaring, bastards for most of the year, but, hey, it’s Christmas time, and it’s time for old uncle Ebenezer to bend down and pick up Tiny Tim and let him know that he’s not such a bad man after all. Indeed, we’re all decent people deep down, and with just a little more effort, we can bring peace on earth.
We don’t need the invective of the Baptist – pouring water on all our human achievements. And we don’t really need God to come to Bethlehem to save us either. After all, we’re all decent people ………. and the Baptist says ‘wake up to yourselves’.
When I think of self-deception, I can’t help but think of my friend, Dave.
Dave is an addict. I couldn’t count how many times I talked to Dave about his life – in Trinitys, in my office, at his home, at the shopping centre, and in the hospital. Every time I speak to him, I always get the same response – ‘I’m doing great now. I had a few problems before, but now …..’ And then I hear that Dave has stolen his sister’s jewelry, and then I hear that he was in trouble with the police again, and then I hear that he’s attempted suicide, and I go and see him, and he says ‘don’t worry, everything is fine. I had a few problems before, but now …..’ I don’t know how he’s doing at the moment? I’m pretty sure he’s still in prison. I haven’t gone to see him lately – mainly because of time constraints, but I must admit that I am also terrified of seeing him and hearing him say ‘Don’t worry, I’m fine now.’
I shouldn’t really single out Dave. His problem is the problem of us all. To a greater to a lesser degree, we are all capable of hiding our sins and our failures from ourselves. ‘Come, repent’ says the Baptist. ‘Take a wash in the Jordan and begin your life anew’. For the king is coming, and the only way to prepare is by opening your hearts to Him.
And that’s why the church, in its wisdom, rosters the Baptist readings into the lectionary every year about this time. Because, it would seem, it recognises that in order get to the joy and goodwill of Christmas, you have to come via the path of repentance.
In Denmark, a traditional Christmas parade still takes place each year, with the venerable
St. Nicholas at the heart of the procession. St. Nicholas still wears the traditional dress of the European bishop, with plush red bishops vestments, and hands out sweets to the children.
In front of him though marches another man in black carrying a stick. His job is to remind the children of all the bad things they’ve done in the last year. This figure has been dubbed ‘Black Peter’ by some, but I think we know who he really is – John the Baptist.
No Christmas pageant should be without him. He brings us back to reality. He reminds us that there’s no real ‘Peace on Earth and goodwill to all men’ without real repentance first, without the good fruit, without the hard work.
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, 4th December, 1999.