Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Response to John

From the beginning, Richard and I hoped that To Speak Now of God would be more than merely a platform for two voices, now one.  We envisioned the possibility of inviting kindred spirits to share the space, and it is now my pleasure to introduce you once again to Lisa Palson Priest.  Lisa and I Collaborated for 17 years to produce The Seasons, a small quarterly devotional booklet.  Reading the recent post on John the Baptizer, Lisa was moved to share a personal response.  H.H.M.

I must confess I am one of those people who can hardly wait to get through Thanksgiving so that I can decorate the Christmas tree the day after. I bring out all the Christmas music that I only allow myself to listen to for six weeks out of the year. I play Christmas carols throughout the season, celebrating Christ’s birth from the last Friday in November until the 6th of January each year. It is a joyous, frantic, exuberant season and frankly, John’s appearance early in Advent strikes a discordant note. His call for repentance feels more appropriate for Lent.

To be honest, I often forget that John exists: his story is an awkward insertion into the joyous season. The ‘voice of one crying in the wilderness’ makes sense, fulfilling as it does Isaiah’s prophecy of old.  It is comforting to remember that the prophets foretold Christ’s birth.  I love to listen to the soaring majesty of Handel’s “Messiah.”  But as I race to complete my Christmas preparations, soul-searching and repentance are frequently low on my list of priorities.

Where does John fit into the scene at the crèche? Does he stand with the shepherds who spent much of their time in the fields? His rough skins and their rough clothing, their shared preference for wilderness and open space give them something in common. But the shepherds lived in hope of a messiah to come. John preached a messiah who was imminent, one whose sandals he would not even dare to touch. He knew the day was at hand, that Emmanuel was already come, and about to reveal himself to a waiting world.  I can imagine that John, unlike the shepherds, would have met three kings or even angels with aplomb. His belief was so powerful, he did not fear to confront the sins of Herod Antipas, even at the risk of losing his life.  John was a man of action, one who chose the rigors of a wilderness ministry over the relative security of village life or the cosmopolitan richness of Jerusalem. And the people came to him, hungry for transformation, leaving – at least for a day – the safety of their old lives behind. 

John is an awkward figure to stumble upon in the busy Advent season, especially when I have just overspent on presents. Or when I am planning a festive outfit for a holiday party. He stands by in his animal skins, hovering on the edge of my consciousness, a shard of dripping honeycomb in hand. His unacknowledged presence is an accusation and discomfort amid the usual glitz and gaiety of the season.

It is easier not to look at him. In the same way that I try not to look at a homeless woman begging on a street corner in Boston.  I can try to ignore him, ignore her, ignore the material excesses of the season. But each evening as I settle down before the glowing, encrusted Christmas tree, enjoying the sparkle of lights on ornaments hung so thickly that they nearly obscure the branches, my eyes wander to the china crèche beside it. I think of the young and frightened parents, the dusty manger, the baby consecrated to sacrifice before he was even born, the tiny king of all creation born amidst the breath of and sound of shuffling barnyard creatures. Here John’s life and prophecies make sense. Here is the glory and the terror of the Christmas message. 

Scripture tells us that when Mary approached her cousin Elizabeth with the news of her pregnancy, the baby who would be called John leapt with the joy of recognition within her womb. In the same way, John recognized his messiah when he approached him at the river three decades later.

In truth, I will probably continue to decorate for Christmas as soon after Thanksgiving as is reasonably possible, and will never stop enjoying Christmas carols throughout the secular Christmas season. But I will also do my best to turn away from the easy excess of the season, and use the weeks before Christmas to make space in my heart so that it, too, will leap with the joy of recognition on Christmas Day.

Lisa Palson Priest
© December 2013

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