It is Advent in Church, but all around us, the Christmas season has begun. The signs are everywhere. Stores are decorated. Christmas music is in the air. Catalogs are in the mail. People are out doing Christmas things.
At my house, we are definitely in the Christmas spirit. We have put up our tree, lit up the house, started listening to Christmas music, and watched our first Christmas special. Most surprising of all, I have already begun my Christmas shopping.
But I worry that many of the celebrations of Christmas, including the ones in my house, are superficial.
In theory, Christmas is all about Christ. In fact, Christmas often has little or nothing to do with Christ. Our “Christmas” celebrations stay on the surface and ignore the deep meaning of the season, the great mystery at the heart of our faith, the good news that God becomes incarnate to live and die among us in order to reconcile us to God.
As Christian people, we should be good at staying focused on that deep meaning hidden beneath the surface cheer of Christmas. Our faith points us to the deep meaning of God beneath the surface of things all the time. We should always be looking for the hand of God at work in the world around us, and listening for the call of Christ, and watching for the movement of the Holy Spirit.
But it can be hard to go deep, to find God, when there is so much action on the surface of our lives and of our world. Ironically that is especially true in the Christmas season. We need help if we want to go deep.
Enter John the Baptizer.
At first glance, John looks and sounds like a first-century version of a crazy, homeless man. But if we look beneath John’s rough exterior, we can see that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11). And no one can do as much to get us properly oriented in the Christmas season as John.
In our Gospel reading, John explodes onto the scene, calling everyone then and now to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John says a lot more too, but it all boils down to that single word: “Repent.”
People hear John’s call to repent in different ways. I hear it as a call to look beneath the surface of my own life, to pay attention to the ways I fail to love in thought, word and deed, in things done and left undone.
On the surface, I am a nice guy, and mostly that’s true. I really am nice, and I mostly act in nice ways. I don’t do the big sins. When I review my day as part of my evening prayers, I could check them off. Don’t murder—check. Don’t commit adultery—check. And so on.
But just avoiding the big sins is a low bar. Jesus himself tells us we have to go deeper.
This is from the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard that it was said…’You shall not murder’….But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.” “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at [another person] with lust has already committed adultery…in his heart” (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28). And Jesus keeps going.
The Christian life is not just about our actions. The Christian life is also about what is going on inside us, about the spirit of our actions.
If I take Jesus’ commands seriously, the Baptizer is right. I have some real repenting to do. My evening self-examinations need to get a lot longer and to go a lot deeper!
By Jesus’ standards, I botch it everywhere and all the time. But where I most often botch it, where I most often fail to live rightly, which is to say, to love fully, is at home.
At home, teasing is a way I show affection, and my teasing supposed to be mildly amusing. Sometimes Carrie takes it that way.
But sometimes, when I’m in a bad mood or when I am irritated at her, a little meanness gets into my teasing. My gentle pokes become more like sharp jabs. I always maintain deniability. If Carrie were to call me on my meanness, I could always say I was just kidding.
But the fact is, meanness is sometimes there. And in those times, my jabs can hurt. One time back in Georgia, I made what I took to be a more or less innocent comment, and Carrie burst into tears. I was shocked.
Thankfully, I have forgotten the details of that exchange. I’m hoping she has, too, but I didn’t have the nerve to check.
What I remember is that I had been out of sorts for a while and had been taking it out on Carrie. And—here’s the key point—I had been taking my bad mood out on Carrie without realizing what I was doing. I wasn’t paying attention to what was going on underneath my surface good humor. I was blind to the meanness in how I was talking to her.
John the Baptizer calls us on that kind of unconscious meanness. John tells us to look inside and acknowledge whatever ugliness we see there.
My unfortunate exchange with Carrie might have been very different if I had heeded John’s call to repent, if I had looked beneath the surface of my words to the tangle of feelings underneath, if I had seriously considered how my words could affect Carrie.
If I had seen the meanness in my words, I might have repented before things came to a head. It is at least possible that I would have said to Carrie, “I know I have been cranky lately. I know I have been a jerk at times. I’m sorry about that. I want you to know that I love you. Please be patient with me. And please help me to see when I am being hurtful so that I can do a little better.”
I doubt I was spiritually mature enough at the time to repent that way. But that is what John’s call to repentance means: Look beneath the surface of what we do and say to the emotions with which we do or say them. Acknowledge the ways we fail to love. Where appropriate, confess, and make amends. And pray always that God will help us to grow in love.
John’s call to repentance doesn’t sound very Christmasy, at least not as we normally define Christmas in contemporary America. But the disparity is just on the surface. If the deep meaning of Christmas is about love, about God’s love for us and about the love we are supposed to have for each other, nothing could be more faithful to the true spirit of Christmas than John’s call to repent, to examine ourselves, to acknowledge our failure to love, and to commit to loving better.
And so, on this second Sunday of Advent, I invite you to heed John’s call, to spend some time over the next couple of weeks in self-examination and repentance, and where necessary, to try loving a little more fully.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan