Sunday, December 11, 2005

Advent 3

Mark 1
1The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2It is written in Isaiah the prophet:
"I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way"[b]—
3"a voice of one calling in the desert,
'Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.' "[c] 4And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I baptize you with[d] water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

'Tis the season to be...

Just for fun I googled 'tis the season...' just to find our what the world is saying. Here is what I found:

'Tis the season to be pro-retail. (shopping)
'Tis the season to be sorry. (Sydney's mayor for last years' half-hearted Christmas celebrations)
'Tis the season to be suspicious. (internet fraud)
'Tis the season to be canny (about which credit card to use)
'Tis the season to be knitting. (?)
'Tis the season to be appropriate. (at the office party)
'Tis the season to be cautious (pet safety and poison)
'Tis the season to be stressed-out. (obvious)
'Tis the season to be broke (spending money we don't have)

Clearly there is some confusion afoot. The season to be jolly has become a troubled melange of emotions that include fear, stress and anxiety. Will consumers spend enough to offset the effect of Katrina? Will they spend online? Will they poison their pets or fail to keep their hands to themselves. Is this Christmas or the end of the world as we know it?

Time for a deep breath. Time to try to relax. One of the things I do when I feeling stressed out is to turn the car radio off. It's a particularly helpful thing to do if I'm not certain why I'm feeling stressed out. There is something about being confronted by relative silence that allows the mind to wander. Wandering, the mind will often follow a path to the place it needs to go: the place that is either the source of the stress or, in really helpful moments, the source of stress and a way out of it.

I made this discovery quite on my own, but others tell me they also use a form of this 'therapy' to search for clues to anxiety. It has also been confirmed by one of the great thinkers of the last century, C.S. Lewis. In this weekend of Narnia (film release was Friday) he has words of advice given in his unique (and edgy) style. He turns things on their head and offers ways to promote God's absence:

Avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your own grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully. But you'll be safer to stick to the papers. You'll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with sexy or snobbish appeal. (Yancy, p. 121)

'Tis the season to look within, say the inventors of Advent: Look within and discover the source of whatever anxiety or stress you feel. And if it is as simple as you are doing too much, slow down. When that last gift appears in a clearly recycled gift bag or the last tray of cookies is no where to be found you can always fall back on that seasonal favourite: it is the thought that counts.


1The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2It is written in Isaiah the prophet:
"I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way"—
3"a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
'Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.' "

Enter John. John came, baptizing in the wilderness region, preaching the message of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He had crazy clothes and a crazy diet and crazy words about someone who would arrive with a winnowing fork in his hand.

In Matthew's Gospel he finds his edge too:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Clearly he missed both "How to Win Friends and Influence People" and Norman Vincent Peale's "The Power of Positive Thinking." Never one to fool around, John the Baptist gives us a fine distillation of the Old Testament prophetic tradition for a new era. "I baptize you with water for repentance, he said, "but after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."

Behind the bluster and the fire is a quiet assembly of people. "People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan" we are told. "Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River." Following that path through the desert, car radios turned off, they came to hear a message and express their regret. They came to participate in a particular style of baptism: "A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."

Baptism, in its literal meaning, translates "to wash." There were several baptisms in the Jewish tradition, most connected to ritual purity and the need to remain 'clean' rather than 'unclean.' It was John who employed an early metaphor that transforms this washing to include repentance for the forgiveness of sins. After this the meaning will shift again, when Jesus says: "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" Our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus will become the normative meaning in time.

Back in the wilderness, however, John is welcoming desert wanderers and offering them an opportunity to repent. It is his baptism that will release them from all the things that they have carried into this wasteland, and allow them to resume their lives in freedom. They have entered a season of forgiveness where they can shed the things they regret and can join with others to form a community of the baptized. Together they wait for the onc long promised, the one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. They wait for the Lord.


I want to share with you part of Margery William's classic story "The Velveteen Rabbit." What I will share is part of a conversation between Rabbit, who is new to the nursery and the old Skin Horse, who has lived in the nursery for a very long time. Rabbit is anxious about his place among the shiny new toys of Christmas, especially the mechanical ones, and anxious to know that he is real.

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

"I suppose you are real?" said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.

"The Boy's Uncle made me Real," he said. "That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can't become unreal again. It lasts for always."

'Tis the season to be real. 'Tis the season to find our place in the desert and cast off the things we would sooner leave behind. 'Tis the season for silence and reflection, seeking the source of our anxiety in a desire to let it go too. 'Tis the season to wait and watch, to search our signs of Christ's coming and be ready to receive him in. Again, 'tis the reason to be real, and to be loved as those who are truly real. St. Augustine said this of God: "By loving the unlovable, you made me lovable." May we have the confidence to know that it lasts for always. Amen.


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