December 16, 2012
Technically, Christmas lasts 12 days. It starts at sundown Christmas Eve and continues until January 6, the Epiphany. In the old days, Christians refrained from Christmas celebration until Christmas Eve. Not even the tree would go up before then, as people respected the holy anticipation of Advent.
However, faith often follows practice, and practice has effectively changed the timing of Advent and Christmas Advent no longer occupies the four weeks before Christmas. To the extent it exists at all, Advent falls between Halloween and Thanksgiving. Christmas is inaugurated by a regal Santa floating down 34th street, at the end of the Macy’s parade. It continues until Christmas Day, when it stops cold in its tracks.
So here it is, nine days before the end of pop Christmas, and we’re weary-worn, tired of hearing “Silver Bells” waft through the canned-goods section at the grocery store.
But why complain like Scrooge? This isn’t the first time Christians have folded to pop culture. Both Christmas and Easter arrived at their current locations on the calendar in part because of pagan celebrations: Easter, mimicking both popular spring fertility rituals and the vernal equinox; and Christmas, honoring winter solstice celebrations. So what if retail stores command Christmas observance long before the exact day? Who are we to complain?
The problem is, John the itinerant Baptist does complain. He refuses to let you or anyone else skip Advent.
John is shouting at the top of his lungs: “You brood of snakes! Who warned you to flee the wrath to come?”
You just wanted to buy one more Christmas present.
“I’m talkin’ to you!” John continues as you walk down the sidewalk toward him.
Who? Me? You look up to see this homeless guy pointing his boney finger at you, spittle coagulating at the edge of his thick beard.
“God doesn’t need your so-called-faith,” he continues. “God can turn these stones into Christians!”
You can tell – this guy is crazy.
Only he isn’t crazy. He is tenacious; but he isn’t crazy.
Time to live your faith.
You mutter to yourself about the city and how it won’t take care of the riff raff, all the while fishing in your pocket for a $5 bill to drop into the Salvation Army bucket.
“That paltry donation isn’t going to buy anybody anything! I’m talkn’ to you. Who told you to flee the wrath to come?”
The man is exhausting your already waning Christmas spirit. If he hopes you’ll give him a ten, he’s sorely mistaken.
Only, he doesn’t want your money; he wants your soul. He wants to know: What difference do you really make? In this confused world of complex darkness?
The man’s eyes are God’s eyes, and now you can’t help but wonder the same thing: What difference?
The winter solstice takes place this coming Friday, December 21, at 11:12 a.m., Greenwich Mean Time. At the solstice, the complex darkness of an empty winter expands like bellows inhaling light, exhaling darkness. Darkness overwhelms and crushes; the soul is lost in a sea of nihilism. It is winter yet again? And your imagination wonders, just like John asks, What am I doing here? Do I have purpose?
Seasonal affective disorder, holiday blues, simple self-questioning. What’s it all about, anyway? Winter darkness can seem so very, very oppressive.
Only, don’t you know? Darkness is not the same as eternal night. Paradoxically, light is hidden within darkness, in its corners, beneath thick blankets. Playing hide and seek, light waits eternally for you to discover grace.
In her poem, “Twelfth Night,” Laurie Lee writes:
“No night could be darker than this night,
no cold so cold …
O never again, it seems, can green things run …
from this dark lung of winter.”
Darkness and cold, night and eternal sleep. John the Baptist frames the darkness for you: What are you doing here, anyway?
What you don’t know is this: Hidden in the dark words of John’s question is resplendent light. When John wonders, “What are you doing here?” he is actually claiming, “You have purpose.”
But John is not one to let you off the hook easily. Meaning: Faith is not simple; it isn’t easy; it takes attention. “God can turn these stones into Christians!” he reminds us. Don’t take your faith for granted.
But this is Christmas, and all you want is a little peace.
“You brood of snakes.”
The Revelation of Peter is an extra-biblical text that was discovered in 1945 among the Dead Sea Scrolls. When written at the end of the first century, Christians faced fierce persecution, and many, Peter included, were being tortured and killed. Christians needed to know that God had not abandoned them – in the stadiums, facing lions, being crucified upside down. They needed to know their life was not being given in vain, that they had purpose.
The times were dark, and these people needed light.
The Revelation opens with a visit to Peter from Jesus. Peter sees himself in the Temple, when a murderous hoard of people run up to attack him. Peter is afraid, but Jesus reassures him: “Put your hands … over your eyes, and tell me what you see.”
Peter covers his eyes, and answers, “Nothing.”
Jesus tells him to do it again.
This time in the darkness, Peter sees a bright light – brighter than the sun. Only the light is not new, it is a light that had been there all along, only Peter couldn’t see it. This light infuses Peter with strength and hope, enough to face persecution and ultimately death.
Enough to share with the other Christians, also facing death. Light – hidden under the thick blanket of darkness.
Light – and hope and confidence that there is more to reality than what you see.
This is the same light neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander observed and described in his new book, “Proof of Heaven.” During his very real, near-death experience, Dr. Alexander was ushered into a pitch-black void, a darkness that Alexander described as paradoxically and simultaneously brimming with light. Complete darkness containing absolute light.
Later, Dr. Alexander quoted the 17th century poet Henry Vaughan to explain his experience: “There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness.”
In God, a dazzling darkness.
John the Baptist, full of the Spirit of God, interrupts your dull light of Christmas cheer with disturbingly dark words. But these dark words are meant not just to break, but to heal; not just to crush, but to build.
Do you need real light this Christmas season? Do you need real hope?
Perhaps you will find tucked deep into John’s dark accusation some ray of hope. For there you will find the promise that God refuses to leave you, or anyone else, alone.
Laurie Lee continues her poem: “For see, beneath the hand, the earth already warms and glows.”
And it is out of utter coldness that the babe is born. That hope is born. Which is what Isaiah meant when he beat John the Baptist to the punch and proclaimed, “The people who lived in deep darkness, on them a light has shined.”
Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy.
— The Rev. Rob Gieselmann is the interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Belvedere, California. Before entering the ministry, Rob practiced law for ten years, he is the author of The Episcopal Call to Love (Apocryphile Press, 2008), and is the father of two wonderful children.