Here we are, once again at the beginning of the liturgical year. I suppose it was the rhythm of the agricultural world in the northern hemisphere, the world that most of our ancestors inhabited until the last one or two centuries, that dictated that the drama of salvation would be played out in our worship during the winter months. For it is between now and Easter in the spring, that the lectionary takes us through the scriptures of Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. In the old days, people had more time during the winter for the special holidays and feasts associated with the readings, while the earth slept and there was no sowing, growing and reaping.
It has become something of a tradition for pastors to sermonize against the materialism of modern Christmas. We all must admit that things have certainly gotten way out of hand in terms of the “getting and spending” that characterizes our Decembers. Our domestic economy is more or less built around the business that this special holiday generates. Long ago, Christmas became “secularized” so that millions of people who don’t worship or respect Christ celebrate it for all kinds of reasons. The beloved story, “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens was, in fact, a powerful statement of how Christmas can be viewed as a moment in which the innate charitable impulse that lies within most humans is brought to the fore and celebrated, all with no reference to Christ himself, or even God.
Maybe a way we can salvage the original meaning of Christmas this year is to start Advent with a reflection on the other man who is featured in this Scriptural story, that being John the Baptist. Now, we know far less about John than we do about Jesus, but what we are told suggests that he was about as anti-materialist as you can get.
He was the son of a priest, and early in his life he took to an ascetic existence, residing for extended periods in the wilderness, learning to live like an ancient “hunter-gatherer,” a way of life that had more or less disappeared long before the time of Christ. So far as we can tell, his ministry was similar to that of a Baptist country preacher in the U.S. a century or so ago. He preached fire and brimstone, he called people to repent, and he baptized. The Bible does not attribute miracles to John—he wasn’t a healer so much as a disturber. You could say that he prepared the way for Christ by disturbing the complacency of the people, opening them to the possibility of a new way of understanding their relationship to God and to each other. That new relationship would be based on forgiveness and love, and we continue to celebrate it with the generosity of Christmas.
Maybe our time needs a new generation of disturbers, so that we might better appreciate the love in which God holds us in spite of our sinfulness. Old complacencies need to be challenged before the amazing news of God’s grace can be fully appreciated. “We should think of Advent as a time to disturb as well as to celebrate.”