December 08, 2008

Camel Hair and the Christ Child

by Debra Dean Murphy
Isaiah 61:1-4, 9-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8; 19-28 (The Third Sunday of Advent)

Sometimes the contrasts are jarring: sweet-faced children singing about cradles and crèches on the same Sunday that we hear about leather belts, locusts and wild honey. It’s early December and we’re already at the manger (the tidy Christmas card version)—in our heads and in our worship. We come to church decked out in our holiday finest and John the Baptizer greets us, sporting animal-skin outerwear and going on and on about baptism and repentance and sandal thongs.

Many churches give lip service to Advent—lighting the candles on the wreath, reading the appointed texts—but don’t seem prepared to go all the way with it. Why is that? Is there any concern about the mixed messages being sent when the camel hair and the Christ child fight for top billing on the same Sunday?

Part of it, I realize, is that many Protestant churches are only a few decades (if that) into the observance of Advent as a liturgical season. Old habits die hard, and trying to convince contemporary church-goers that Advent is a season of delayed gratification is a hard sell. I get that. I’ve fought that fight myself.

But here we are, anticipating the third Sunday of Advent, and John the Baptizer is still front and center. In the fourth gospel, John does not baptize Jesus but he is clear about his role: “He came as a witness to testify to the light . . . he himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light” (John 7-8).

Light. It sounds like we’re back to Christmas again—candles, glowing embers, all the sentimental trappings of the hearth and home “holiday season.” But because this is John’s gospel, we know that this “light” is also the logos—the very logic of the universe: word become flesh; the one through whom all things came into being.

And we also know that this light, logos, word become flesh will inaugurate a kingdom that turns everything upside down, for he has come “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).

John will soon enough lose his head for proclaiming such a kingdom and Jesus’ own mother will defy all stereotypes of the sweet blessed virgin when she gives a subversive political speech, recorded in Luke’s gospel and one of the appointed readings for Advent (this Sunday for Catholics; next week for most Protestants).

This Sunday’s Psalm and Epistle lesson school us in the proper response to the coming upside-down kingdom: “our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy,” proclaims Psalm 126:2. Paul puts it more succinctly to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always.”

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Episcopal priest and writer, Fleming Rutledge, once described a Christmas card she received in 1969. On the front in red were these words of John the Baptist: “There is One among you . . .” On the inside of the card was a black-and-white photograph of a young Vietnamese girl with the blank, stunned expression of a child in wartime. Under the photograph was the rest of the verse: “ . . . whom you do not recognize.”

Was this propaganda? wonders Rutledge. Dubious Christology? Political heavy-handedness? Maybe, she says. “But the Baptizer lends himself to messages of startling currency.”

May we go all the way with Advent this year, recognizing the “startling currency” of the Baptizer’s unsettling words and the Prophet’s foretelling. And may the summons to joy by the Psalmist and the apostle Paul, glimpsed this week on Gaudete Sunday, be enough to sustain us through the remaining days of Advent, till we arrive at last at the Feast of the Nativity where the logos-light-Christ child, and the joy his advent brings, will be all in all.

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