The Rev’d Matthew D. Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut
Year B, Advent III
December 14th, 2014
I can think of no other time of the year in which the liturgical calendar is more out of sync with the cultural calendar than Advent. While the church has already stepped into the next year—and into a penitential season at that—, the rest of the world is busily shopping, buying, consuming, making merry, and going to ugly sweater parties. While we inside these walls sing the slow, almost dirge-like hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, outside these walls we relish the ineffable joys of singing Christmas trees, inundating us with Frank Sinatra-esque jazzed up versions of Jingle Bells and Rocking Around the Christmas Tree.
But is there some overlap between the two seasons? I think I may have found some common ground between our Gospel reading and the Christmas season (by which I mean not Christmas tide—the real 12 days of Christmas—but the time-period that extends from mid-October up to right after Christmas day).
We all know that the Christmas song Santa Claus is Coming to Town, right? I recall as a child feeling mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, Santa was coming! Presents for all! Hooray! But, on the other hand, I felt a little uneasy about certain lines of the songs, especially the ones about a strange man watching me while I sleep and acting a bit like a peeping Tom while I am awake. I mean, doesn’t Santa have any sense of the importance of privacy?
Well, that’s probably overthinking it a bit. Let’s not portray Santa as some sort of a peeping Tom; that’s just wrong. Let’s not go too far down the road of imagining Santa as an old bearded white guy who enjoys secretly watching people (especially since, as I have mentioned, I’ll parallel this to our Gospel reading, and especially since, I suppose, a critic of Christianity could potentially make the same case against the doctrine of God’s omnipresence.). The real point of the song, no doubt, was simply to try to motivate children to be kind and generous. This motivation came from imagining Santa as an ever-present, all-seeing, but never seen Panopticon. “You don’t see him, little Johnny, but he’s here”—a simultaneously exhilarating and unnerving thought.
John the Baptist utters something to his crowds that works in a similar manner, simultaneously exhilarating and unnerving: “There standeth one among you, whom ye know not.” Imagine the scene: out in the desert a large crowd begins to throng around this character who sounds as wild as a character from a Charlie Daniels’ Song. The crowds gather because they think he might be the one, the Messiah. They ask him, “Who are you?” and he tells them, “I am not the Christ.” Then they continue to ask him, “Are you Elijah? Are you one of the prophets?” And he answers them in increasingly short answers, which probably mirror his patience for their questions, “I’m not. No.”
So the crowd begins to get antsy and ask, “Well then who are you? We need to know. We need to give an answer to those who sent us.” Then John the Baptist says, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!”
How can this be? How do we, standing expectantly in this deserted place, make sense of John’s baptism, if he’s not the long awaited Messiah?
Imagine you are there, and you hear John the Baptist say, “I baptize you in water, but someone is here standing in your midst who is the Christ, and you don’t recognize him!” I asked my daughter this week to imagine with me, “If you were out in the desert and John the Baptist said, ‘Christ is here in this crowd standing among us, and we don’t recognize him!’” She thought for a second and then pointed at me and raised her voice, “Jesus is real and you’re not Jesus!” How might you imagine yourself in that scene?
I imagine hearing those words and at first feeling a sense of exhilaration. The Messiah is here! We’ve waited so long and John the Baptist says he’s among us now! I look to my right and wonder, “Is it you?” I look to my left and think the same thing. Then I realize it must not be him since he is looking at me, thinking the same thing, fairly convinced I’m am too ugly and dim-witted to be the Messiah. We’ve waited so long and the waiting is almost over. As John Keble said, “He is come from heaven, He is here on earth, He is in the country, nay more He is even now in this company.”
But, on the other hand, I also imagine feeling very disturbed. The Messiah is there standing among the crowd—among the very human scene of people: so tired, so eager, so haggard. Among the dirt, the heat, the rebels. John Keble goes on: “all the while there was in the multitude a poor, humble, quiet young man, supposed to be a carpenter’s son of Nazareth, a place of no great credit, who had lived now thirty years working at the carpenter’s trade, going about the village like any other poor but respectable artisan. (…) very likely they thronged pressed Him, but they knew him not.” There is something deeply disturbing about hearing that Christ is among us, very near us, perhaps even brushing up against us, especially if we don’t recognize him. Among those of us there in that company who look for the Messiah, Christ is present but we don’t see him.
The words of John the Baptist, the last prophet, sent to prepare our hearts for God’s presence among us, are exhilarating and profoundly troubling. Even now on the third Sunday of Advent, as we await the Christ Mass, we can say the same words: Christ is near us, even among us, though we know him not. It is not for no reason that our liturgical year begins and ends with warnings about not seeing Christ. John the Baptist warns us here at the beginning of the year and at Christ the King we hear at the end of the year about those goats who never recognized Christ among them.
Advent invites us to learn to see clearly, to recognize Christ in ten thousand places, until the day we will see him clearly—an important lesson, since we can easily miss him, if we are in a hurry and not looking.
The belief of our tradition is the altar is one of the surest places we can come to meet God in Christ. When we come in faith, we receive God’s gift of Christ in the bread and the wine. We learn to recognize Christ there. As we take God’s life into our own life, God gives us eyes to see Christ in our midst. So, of course, today we will come to the altar. But then go out into the highways and the hedges and look for Jesus in the ragged and naked, in the oppressed, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. When you find him there, tie a towel around your waist and wash his feet. For today we see him as in a mirror dimly, but the day comes when we shall see him face-to-face.