In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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 ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:1-12 [NRSV])
There is no way to get around it; this material always sounds a jarring note prior to the Advent we like to experience, the one where we sing carols and anticipate angels and shepherds and wise men from afar. Sheep and cattle and camels, too -- no scowling tigers or lunging bears. We like to limit our Advent discord to family squabbles over fake versus real, pine versus spruce, steady versus twinkling. No vipers ands burning chaff for us, thank you very much.
But there it is, right at the beginning of the Gospel, and what are we supposed to do with it?
I always wondered about John the Baptist. I mean, he sounds quite ill. Who would listen to a man wandering around in animal clothing, crunchy locusts and honey dripping from his hands as he shouted his unique mixture of invective and ecstatic proclamation?
Years ago, I used to work downtown, and a large lady with a tamborine made frequent lunchtime sojourns up and down the block in front of a major department store, shouting the good news of salvation to all the passers-by, who studiously looked the other way. A gentleman in a suit often roamed the same block, preaching fire and brimstone at the top of his lungs. One day he walked right up to me, pointed his finger in my face, and intoned in a deep bass voice worthy of James Earl Jones, "God sees all of your secret sins!"
That was not good news to me.
I spent this past Thanksgiving week-end in Chicago with my family, and we went to see the Christmas displays at Marshall Field's. Sure enough, the Chicago version of John the Baptist inhabited the corner in front of one of the Snow White display windows. This one was a yoing man, eanestly sincere as he repeatedly insisted into a bullhorn that the oblivious shoppers needed to hear the words of the Gospel and ensure their salvation. Most of the crowd, of course, ignored him or, if forced by the crowd in his direction, turned politely away.
John is extreme, for sure, and his harsh words interject, at minimum, a sense of unease into our holiday festivities. But Christmas is an uneasy holiday. There is such a gaping disconnect between the meaning of Christmas and the endless round of shopping, decorating and partying that we try not to notice it. But there is John, to remind us.
I'm not, by nature, much of a shopper, so I think it's wise for me to refrain from criticizing people who are. I can think of few less appealing ways of spending my Thanksgiving holiday week-end than racing through stores. But we did have fun inspecting the elaborate Marshall Field's window displays and checking out the giant tree inside. In years past, we've taken kids to see Santa, attended Nutcracker and Christmas Carol productions , and made a family tradition of one big night of downtown shopping. We host a huge dinner on Christmas Day, and a couple of years we've taken elaborate trips. We could by no means be mistaken for clones of John the Baptist.
But that unease is always there. Christmas, after all, is really about Easter. And before Easter comes the ministry of Jesus, with its passionate focus on the poor and distressed. And after Easter comes Pentecost, the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire of which John speaks, which we are supposed to use to bring Christ into the world. There's just nothing in there about maxing out credit cards to buy stacks of plastic kitchens and toy weapons.
One of my favorite Christmas songs, which I've heard only at the church I now attend, is entitled "And Every Stone Shall Cry." You can read the lyrics and listen to a portion of it here. Its haunting melody reminds us that
Yet He shall be forsakenAnd yielded up to dieThe sky shall groan and darkenAnd every stone shall cry
but also that
But now as at the endingThe low is lifted highThe stars will bend their voicesAnd every stone shall cry*
That song, I think, reflects on what we are meant to hear in the story of John the Baptist each Advent. The outrage is there, of course -- outrage over a world which persists in focusing on the glitz and the tensions of holiday preparation rather than the incarnate presence of God, and which finds expression in a concluding prediction of angry judgment. But so is the disappointment, at our sad inability to recognize that, in the economy of the Bible, the low is always lifted high.