Since Peter McGrath’s not here today it safe to let you in on a secret. In cynical circles, Jesuits are not known for their liturgical awareness. In fact, there’s a joke. How do you tell a good Jesuit liturgy? —No one gets hurt.
Advent is a good example. In my house of 11 men, we bought our Christmas tree on the first Sunday of Advent, dressed it on the first Monday, and celebrated Christmas around it four days later. Meanwhile the poor Advent wreath with its one candle sat there, glowing dimly, totally overshadowed by this gaudy Tree with its miles of electric light.
Part of our early-Advent Christmas is a community gift-exchange. Usually we draw names from a hat and buy a little something for someone in particular but this year we went the anonymous route. Every one buys something and puts the gift under the tree. Then you all draw a number and the guy with number one gets to pick a present and open it. Then Number Two has a difficult choice: delve under the tree for some unknown gift or rip the Bing Crosby CD out of Number One’s hands. No contest! Number Three has to choose among Bing Crosby, three pairs of socks (from the Gap, of course), or whatever mysteries still lurk under the Tree. Are you following this? … Number Five was kicking himself for days because he took Number Four’s coffee mug and then found the gift he would have opened was a certificate for a half-hour massage!
Which brings me today’s message—be careful which gift you settle for because there’s something better coming down the pike.
The promise of the ultimate gift is shining in Isaiah: good news for the lowly, healing for the brokenhearted, liberty for captives. Oh, and for good measure, joy, salvation, justice, praise. It’s no wonder that Paul is telling the Christian community in Thessalonika, “Rejoice!”—the ultimate gift is coming.
But what’s all this fuss about John the Baptizer? He was with us last week proclaiming the coming end-times, the harbinger of the final harvest, offering a last chance to maybe be forgiven. He’s here again—and he seems to have an identity crisis, knowing only who he isn’t: are you Messiah? NO! are you Elijah? NO! are you the final prophet? NO! Then who is he? And why are the gospel writers so concerned to include him and at the same time to subordinate him to Jesus? … I guess because many people were confusing them and mixing their messages. So all the gospel writers are very careful to tell them apart and show who’s boss. That’s why John is good but Jesus is better. John is the open gift but Jesus is still under the tree.
John the Baptizer stands for us as the “almost answer.” In Advent we wait and wait for the answer to all our questions, the fulfilment of all our longings, the satisfaction of all our hopes. The Baptizer is the symbol of all the inadequate answers, the half fulfilments, and the sort-of- satisfactions, which we settle for because they are here now and can put an end to our waiting for the ultimate gift. All the gospel writers are crying out—voices in the wilderness—”Wait! Wait for the real gift, wait the best gift.” So what are our “almost answers,” what are we settling for in place of the best gift, what are we clinging to in case all that’s left under the Tree is a lump of coal?
John—the almost answer—comes with winnowing fan, and fire, ready for harvest and God’s judgement. In contrast, Jesus opens his ministry not with fall but with springtime, not with the scent of bonfires but with stories of seeds, and growth, and new shoots, and green possibilities.
While the Baptizer is in prison, Luke has him sending messengers to Jesus and asking “Are you the one, or must we wait for someone else?” And Jesus’ answer is beautiful: “look around you—the blind see, the lame walk, the outcasts find a home, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor—the poor—hear good news.” The ultimate gift has been given. Can we believe him just long enough to wait, just long enough not to settle for fire and judgement, just long enough for tenderness to grow among us like a child?