For we who have the good fortune to live amongst the wealthy, one of the intriguing developments to Christmas over recent years has been the way our Christmas images have been reshaped as they link to our rising standard of living. For many in the West, consumer goods are available in a way they have never been before. The Christmas tree, once only available for the aristocracy is now standard even if it is now sometimes artificial. Plug in lights are now so common that they not only typically grace the tree, they now sometimes light up whole houses with dazzling flickering displays. Christmas music once restricted to carols sung by small groups under a lamppost on the street or round a piano in the front room has now become an entire industry.
There is scarcely a place at the Town Centre or Mall where you can avoid the sound of the cheerful Christmas music. For the families with a decent credit card limit, the presents are increasingly plentiful and attractive and only the real problem with the food for many families is to decide which sort of tempting food should feature for the Christmas table. Modern transport and electronic communication means the family scattered by modern life choices can at least talk and see one another, even if Skype sometimes replaces face to face contact, and emails replace the traditional Christmas cards and letters.
If you add in the religious festival theme it is hardly surprising that the church perspective is to emphasize the celebration theme by giving this third day in Advent a joyous slant, which the Latin Church calls Gaudete Sunday meaning Rejoice Sunday. There is however a curious aspect of the chosen readings for this day. Why do you think these readings have been chosen to celebrate joy or rejoicing? Instead of angels and shepherds gathering and a baby in a manger receiving strangers from the East bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, John’s gospel has this strange figure of John the Baptist talking about being witness to the light – and what is more he appears to see himself passing on this light in a very grim setting indeed.
This John may have been able to draw the crowds but I have sometimes wondered why John the Baptist should be understood to be a popular figure of his day when you may remember from last week’s reading he also seems so outspoken about doom, the need for drastic self examination and extremely urgent personal reform. John seems a complex and interesting man. He comes across as one who puts his message before himself. He is at pains to stress that he is not important in his own right – and of course since he was speaking at a time when there were a number of contenders for being the Messiah, lest there should be any confusion, he specifically claims not to be the Messiah.
Reflecting on his speech, with the memory of the election still relatively fresh in our minds, perhaps we should also admit John would not have made a very good politician. As we heard in last week’s gospel he insulted his listeners. Later he would tell Herod to sort out his personal life – and John was thrown into prison and finally executed as a consequence. Anyone with a thought to their personal safety would be unlikely to give total support to such a rebel. Yet perhaps it is that there is always a feeling of refreshing authenticity with a voice of plain spoken honesty. If John had merely said everything is great, I suspect his audience would not have listened and even if they had, they would not truly have believed him.
Remember those in his audience would have included the farmers who were losing their land and income to the Roman invaders. There would be those who were facing crippling taxes and a crisis of debt that would make our current economic downturn seem trivial by comparison. And when the way ahead seems grim of course is the very time when light is needed. Light needed because times are dark. We need that reminder. When we think of the festivities of Christmas it is easy to get into the mode of thinking that there is no darkness, there is a show or a festival heading our way and admittedly there is much about the season which encourages the spectator mentality. The Christmas parade to watch, carollers and brass bands to listen to, light displays to view, TV programmes with a Christmas theme…so much to watch – and listen to…yet perhaps even today there is a need to remember darkness.
A casual reading of the joy of Christmas might mean that in blocking out the unpleasant realities, Christmas becomes a time of pretence. Surely honesty requires we admit that all is not entirely well with the world as a consequence of Christ’s coming. Just as Christ’s coming did not bring peace and joy to Israel, the reality is that the Joy to the World we sing of in our carols is sung to a world where the shadows persist.
In those days, Jesus arrival did not mean the Romans went home. Soon after Jesus had been crucified, growing rebellion amongst the Jews brought the severest of reprisals from the Romans. No joy there. And nor are we there yet in terms of Joy. World hunger has not been eradicated, and war has not somehow disappeared with the arrival of the Prince of Peace. We look at the destruction in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and must admit frankly the absence of peace. Even for those of us fortunate enough to live in comfort and ease, poverty is side by side with the wealth we see about us. We do not have to look too far to find climate refugees, pollution, prejudice and despite the light in the darkness, the homeless even in our city are not thereby housed ….the list goes on.
In this other side to our Christmas preparation which suggests a darker backdrop to the need for light is somehow more true both to its to its present and even its historical setting. A surprisingly large number, even in our New Zealand setting, will not automatically approach this Advent season with total joy. For many the shadows are real indeed.
Apart from the festivities, Christmas is also a time when companies take stock and restructure for the coming year and we all know what restructuring can mean for employment. The civil servants will similarly be worried at the Government line of their intended austere trimming of the fat – and of course there is the continuing trend of big business moving manufacturing off shore – both of which which mean the loss of jobs.
Approaching unemployment translates to an escalation of money worries when mortgage repayments and higher purchase agreements start to resemble increasingly insurmountable hurdles.
The expected buying of presents and the inevitable round of celebrations can be the tipping point for stressed families, and those who run the women’s refuges say that at Christmas time there is always an upsurge in family violence. It is also a time when failing health or memories of bereavement seems somehow to be magnified. In many ways both the recorder of Isaiah and the writer of the Gospel of John seem more in tune with these grimmer realities of life, than for example Luke or Matthew with their Christmas tableaux.
Each year about this time, the good news is that there are some amongst us who will ensure that the food banks are resourced, that community meals for the homeless will happen, and that presents are distributed to the Nation’s poor. Indeed John the Baptist adds to the joy of Christmas by reminding those who listen that they are called upon to make a personal response. He heralds Jesus whose message is a call to personal responsibility to our fellows. It is true that not all will listen. There is nothing new in that. No doubt some who were present when John the Baptist harangued the crowd were unchanged in their attitudes, just as it was only some who listened to Jesus who were moved to take up his message. Today the call for social responsibility comes from multiple sources. Those who run our city missions, those who work with refugees, those who draw our attention to the needy among us can call from the wilderness. Whether or not we listen is part of our responsde to the gospel.
So perhaps this means that the rejoicing in Gaudete Sunday is there is potential, but only if we and those like us are prepared to move from darkness to the light. Perhaps we might reflect on who is likely this coming Christmas to find this light of rejoicing as a consequence of our witness and action in the darkness we encounter. It is certainly not a given that the light will be passed on.
Allow me to draw a parallel with a phenomenon which the scientifically literate in the congregation might relate to. Starlight or sunlight comes to us as beams of electromagnetic waves. The waves are generally mixed up in all planes and the visible parts are only a portion of the spectrum of waves heading our way. These waves can be passed on after they arrive if they are collected and transmitted in the right way. For example a piece of transparent plastic might allow most of the visible light to pass right through. If however a piece of Polaroid plastic is used instead, the Polaroid only allows the waves in one plane to pass. This drastically cuts down the amount of light passed through to the other side – which of course is why Polaroid sunglasses cut down the sun’s glare. If now the transmitted light is passed through a second identical Polaroid – but this time at right angles to the first we have what is called crossed Polaroids and virtually no light will get through. Using a filtered message which leaves out part of the light and further filtering it again is not a recipe for passing on the light.
If now we return to the light Isaiah refers to – in the quote from John, the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light, to extend the analogy, there is a question. What sort of transmitting medium will we be? Perhaps there is something of the polaroid in all of us, It is unlikely we will allow ourselves to see all the wavelengths – and what we then transmit is going to be less than the light we received. If instead we choose to receive our inspiration in the form of light which has already been filtered by someone else, and then if we choose only to notice part of their message, the amount of light to be retransmitted will be even less.
Listen to the way Isaiah places his advent message in a setting of images of oppression, captivity and mourning. Listen to his words:
The spirit of the Lord God is
Because the Lord has anointed me,
He has sent me to bring good
news to the oppressed,
To bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty
to the captives,
And release to the prisoners;
To comfort all who
Yet in terms of John the Baptist the message was clear. There is joy for those who are in dark times that the light is coming – but the implication of his message is that it is only available to those who first prepare themselves to use as much of the light as they are able. Not all of John’s audience admitted their sins and had themselves baptized. Nor did everyone suddenly find themselves sorted out.
Perhaps there is still need for John’s message. If Christmas is not to be a “same old, same old” passing celebration – perhaps we too need to recognize the dark shadows about us – to seek whatever light we can find and to make every effort to bring that light to bear on the darkest places. Then we too might have reason to recognize this time of Advent as one of possibility, Gaudete Sunday – a time to rejoice for what might be.