Every year John the Baptist shows up in Advent and hangs around for half the season, at which time he suddenly disappears until after Christmas and Epiphany, when he reappears to baptize Jesus the first or second Sunday in January. The connection between John and Advent is reasonably clear: he is the forerunner, and his message paves the way for the coming Messiah. Were it not for John, the message we would likely hear in Advent would be something about the sweet baby Jesus, thus joining us to the culture’s romanticizing of Christmas by obliterating Advent. John forestalls that. His is a message of wildness, of thunder, of fire, of irrepressible truth telling. If we hear him at all in Advent, it is hard not to grasp the notion that this season is about way more than getting revved up for a planet-wide blowout on December 25, and far beyond the sentimental notion of a little baby being cradled by a young mother meeting all the dictates of middle-class conformity.
Oh, how we love to domesticate God! The man upstairs, the genial co-pilot, the model scoutmaster, even the familial tyrant, the petty dictator, the threatening police officer, the punitive judge: many of our functional notions and pictures of the deity are drawn from our rather small ideals and rather oversized fears and amount to a mishmash of cartoons that have nothing whatsoever to do with Truth. John the Baptizer, though, proclaims a no-nonsense gospel of practical yet transformative behavior. “What shall we do?” ask the crowds on hearing his prophecy of a new age. “Share your coats if you have more than one, and food if you have any,” he says. “What shall we do?” ask the tax collectors. “Don’t cheat,” he says. “What shall we do?” ask the soldiers. “Tell the truth and quit extorting,” John answers. Pretty simple. Moral. Direct. Somehow this is connected to turning over a new leaf in preparation for the messianic age. Don’t underestimate it, though. Stopping what we are used to doing; changing ingrained behavior; getting a totally new attitude: it might seem simple, but we know better if we have ever tried it. The pull of the familiar is strong, strong. God smashes the familiar in order to re-create us, freeing us from the patterns that warp us and leave us misshapen and powerless to do any good.
John the Baptizer. People questioned in their hearts whether he might be the Messiah. He looked and sounded and no doubt smelt like a messiah. Yet, he said, “One is coming who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” The search committee was looking for a parson, and John frustrated them: “Not I,” said he. “Look for another. One is coming who will baptize you with Holy Spirit and with fire.” That sort of sounds like Pentecost, doesn’t it? And Pentecost Day is the culmination of the Easter season. So what is going on here? Suddenly John the Baptist has afforded the bridge that links Advent with Easter and Pentecost. And that is fitting because of all things, John the Baptist is known for baptism. Sure, his baptism was a simple bath, the way he practiced it. It was an outward, visible sign—washing—of an interior change of heart. It was the manifestation of a transformative shift in attitude and behavior.
And that is what Advent is truly about. Not something that is essentially tied to a birth a long time ago, but a season for getting our bearings in a new world—a world of resurrection, a world spirit-driven, where old habits are discarded, old attitudes are reworked, old approaches cleaned up, old responses carefully re-appropriated to match life in a new context.
This is, if anything the secret of Christianity—and an all too well kept one. The whole life of Christ, the entire message of salvation, is not a series of disconnected events and discrete messages having to do with a variety of things, but rather a single story that has to do with only two things, which are themselves two sides of the same thing. One is incarnation and the other is resurrection. One has to do with God becoming one with humanity. The other has to do with humanity, especially the human body, being the vehicle for divine life. These two things are all there is to it, at the end of the day. All morality, all knowledge, all existence are caught up in these two things—and they are summed up in baptism. We have taken baptism quite a way beyond what John the Baptist practiced, but we have not entirely left John’s baptism in the past. We see going down under the water and back up again as the pattern for death and resurrection, while he only saw it as a change of heart. But the two insights lead to the same conclusion: resurrection is about radical change here and now. We are bodies that share the divine life of him who for our sake came to share our humanity. We are dead to all that is alien to God and alive to all that belongs to God, and it is only radical Grace that explains how and why.
OK. Enough rhetoric and theory. Where do spirit and flesh meet in all this? What does all this have to do with the husband who is grieving his young wife’s death? What does this matter to the parents who have just found out that their young son has incurable cancer? What does this say to the person who has just lost his third job with no prospects of getting another any time soon?
We would like a template that we can take and apply to any and all situations, coming up with answers that make sense of these lofty notions of incarnation and resurrection, especially if the template would make all things turn out happily. There is no such thing. As scripture says in one place, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” which means look at your own life and figure out where wholeness happens for you, and how, by the love of Christ, you can not only survive but really live. The way we go about this whole process is through sharing our stories. Little tidbits of light and promise show up in my life and in yours. We talk about them with each other and gain some insight in the way to live. We gradually begin to see patterns of things, never reducible to formulas, but strangely telling of principles like letting go, easing up, learning to trust, giving up control, fighting for the right against all odds, learning to submit our egos to a higher, if sometimes incomprehensible, purpose. Such is the story of a man whose life the church is about to celebrate this week, William Lloyd Garrison. Born in Massachusetts, Garrison tasted poverty in his childhood when his father, a sailor, abandoned his family. Somehow—God knows how—Garrison caught a zeal for justice and a hatred of slavery. He worked on a newspaper in Baltimore. Later he returned to Boston. The black community there helped him to found The Liberator, an antislavery paper.
Garrison’s paper became the dominant voice in the abolitionist movement. He refused to be a moderate when, as he put it, the house was clearly on fire. People all over the country, enraged by his insistence of abolition with no compensation to slave owners, spewed forth hatred and violence, as is, you might observe, the norm. Garrison was even jailed for his own safety.
Not to be deterred, Garrison invited black and female writers to contribute to The Liberator. Maria Stewart was one of the writers who came to him with a handful of essays to publish. An orphaned black woman born in Hartford, Stewart had grown up in the household of a white minister. Widowed at a young age, she became an outspoken foe of slavery and racism. Ultimately she became the Head Matron of Freedom’s Hospital here in Washington, which was to become Howard University.
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong,
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future
And behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow
Keeping watch above [God’s] own.
So this is the outward life. But the inward life is not too different. Justice does not come only to those who are engaged in the large fights against slavery, inhumanity, and oppression, but also to those who are privately hurting, wounded, and choking back their own tears. The grieving husband might find astonishing power to form new relationships and to weather the days and nights of loneliness by reaching out to others. The parents of a dying child may discover how to celebrate life whether it is short or long. The jobless person could bounce around trying to find work and ultimately discover new life in communities of caring people. Does it always work out handily? No. Are there disappointments galore? Yes. What makes the difference then? Why should anyone pay any attention to this gospel of baptism, of death and resurrection? For the simple reason that those who give themselves over to it, like William Lloyd Garrison and Maria Stewart and Joan of Arc and Mohandas Ghandi and Thomas Merton and Nelson Mandela and Dorothy Day and Jesus of Nazareth, keep showing the human race that success is a worthless deity, while the Spirit gives New Life to mortal bodies, often weak ones, forgotten, and even dead.
So John the Baptist thunders on. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Bear fruit, or be cut down. It doesn’t sound pretty. But he means that we simply cannot make peace with oppression, either outwardly or inwardly. The resurrection will happen, no matter how many stones are rolled against the grave. God will raise up children who are as good as dead. You don’t even have to believe it. Incarnation is powerful enough to take bread and make it body, and take blood and make it drinkable as wine. God is afoot in the world and there is no deterring what brought all into being. Mock on, fret on, and you cannot stop the unstoppable.
Of course, there are no guarantees. That is why we call it “faith.”
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2015