Frances writes on next Sunday’s readings :- The Advent-Christmas seasons can lull us into a pattern of sameness and security as we trundle through the yearly routine of preparations, planning festive meals and the endless rounds of shopping for presents. Yet our gospel (John 1:6-8; 19-28) serves to bring a tension, not to say a threat to any certainty, as we see. The elite and the religiously observant in Jerusalem, the priests and Levites, those responsible for sacrifice and worship in the temple; and the Pharisees, the ultra religious all sent to enquire as to who and what John the Baptist represented. If we read on in the Fourth Gospel, we will see, they were to be deeply troubled and threatened by the news of Jesus; indeed, so disturbed as to plan his destruction.
Most Jews of the 1st century were awaiting the Messiah; one they believed would rid the nation of all occupying oppressors and reverse the fortunes of the nation. Around the 100 years or so surrounding Jesus a number of such would-be Messiah’s appeared and were not brought to their deaths by the Jewish authorities precisely because they did fit in with the nation’s hopes. But John the Baptist rocked the boat because he did not fit the thinking of the times. He denied that he was the Messiah, the redeemer from slavery of the Jews; he denied that he was Elijah, the great prophet whose coming would precede the Kingdom of God, and he denied that he was Moses reincarnate. This highly disturbing phenomenon stood as a radical departure from all that Judaism understood about itself and longed for: the coming of God’s reign in power and glory; the renewal of the great prophetic times and the reinvigoration of the law of Moses, and all of this should, by their calculations have taken place in Jerusalem. Small wonder then that John upset so many! And, as a final and decisive riposte to the established order, John carried out his ministry of baptism for repentance in pagan territory on the far side of the Jordan, and in doing so proclaimed one far superior to himself and to all that Judaism previously believed fundamental to its identity. Small wonder then that he met a sticky end and that in so doing he stood as a symbol for the life and career of Jesus his Lord and master. “One is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.” John the Baptist quite literally threw aside all Israel’s beliefs about itself, above all its exclusive claim to knowledge of God, in his baptismal practises which included the despised foreigners; pagans and giving them too the promises of God. So not a comfy message to the established order and setting the pattern for Christianity that we too should expect to be constantly disturbed and challenged by the gospel and the God whom it proclaims.
In view of this challenge it is a great pity that our second reading (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24) begins with the very poor translation of xairete, ‘rejoice!’ in Greek which does not necessarily have much to do with ‘happiness’, rather a superficial emotion. Indeed, we can as with the Baptist rejoice in adversity as well as happiness as we see hope and possibility in all sorts of events. Paul wrote this encouraging letter to what was possibly his favourite Christian community to encourage them and himself under times of stress when they were possibly facing some persecution as he had in other parts of northern Greece. The letter is fulsome in its encouragement of them, but also ends on a stern disciplinary note. “Be at peace among yourselves…admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” Certainly then, not a passing or light emotion but joyous that the Christian faithful are maintaining and expanding the work of the Church in their area, and assuring them of God’s faithfulness.
It is a similar message to that sent to the returned from exile of 3rd Isaiah, with its message to the exiles who may have found things far from idyllic in their homeland. The good news was that they were able to return to Israel once more and settle there again, but the situation may not have been easy – indeed, we know that it was not, for others had occupied their properties in the intervening years. Yet the prophet exults: “I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation, he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity like a bridegroom wearing his wreath.” It speaks of a future wrapped in God, full of hope and promise in the future, something they can get their teeth into, participate in. The Advent season then is a time of preparation, not just for the outward festivities, but for our spiritual life too; and to expect this always to run smoothly and without any rocky patches is as fatuous as to expect it of all our Christmas plans and experiences. It is the attitudes we bring to this period of the Church’s year that will determine what we make of it, and if we approach it with the joy of Christ and with John the Baptist’s fulsome hope, we will be fully rewarded, our rejoicing will be complete.