Saturday, December 10, 2011

Thoughts for Gaudete Sunday, Advent III, 2011

Like me, many this morning are thinking: O no, it’s John the Baptist again! And this happens every year on the second and third Sundays of Advent. Congregations are filled with kind forbearance as rectors and vicars all over the Anglican world grit their teeth and resist the temptation to repeat the theme or even the sermon - again and again.

And there’s no getting away from the fact that of all figures in Advent John the Baptist seems to occupy a disproportionate amount of time and space. Only the voice (and not the personality) of Isaiah takes up more page space. But Isaiah didn’t dress in wild animal skins tied with a leather belt (well, for all we know) so he doesn’t interest us that much as a person.

So what to do with the liturgical challenge that John the Baptist is still on our church calendar seven days after he first made an appearance? Perhaps we ought to approach this odd, prophetic figure in a different way.

The world of art may shed some new light on John, but apart from Caravaggio’s wonderful series of seven (or is it eight?) paintings of the Baptist (and I highly recommend that you try to stand in front of an original at some point. Most are in Italy but here is one in Kansas City!) … Apart from these works there is little of inspiration. And even Caravaggio paints himself into his work – just as many bible commentators write themselves into their work. So where are we to go next? Surely not Titian, whose portrayal of John the Baptist is the most camp I have ever seen him! And the head and shoulders of John by Leonardo de Vinci shows the baptizer making what appears to be a very rude gesture. I can’t and won’t show it in the pulpit but it is known on many streets as the Bronx Salute!

To talk about, to think about John the Baptist for a second time involves returning to the text of scripture, and reading it carefully, noting not what we think it says but what it actually says.

Last Sunday we listened to the description of the Baptist’s and his words in Mark’s Gospel. It was primarily a message of repentance and preparation. But today we move to another set of words, another description, another insight. Today we are in John’s Gospel.

No mention of repentance. No judgmental words. Not even a graphic description of John. In fact in this gospel narrative John the Baptist is defined not by what he was – but by what he wasn’t.

He was not the light. (But came to bear witness to the light.)
He was not the Messiah.
He was not Elijah.
He was not the prophet.

And the professional clergy and theologians were puzzled but, giving him the benefit of the doubt, invited him to say who and what he was.

And then he quoted Isaiah. Not the judgment words of Isaiah but the clear call that something was about to happen. The statement that God was on the move. The clarion call to look put! Things were about to change.

A mystical, echoing pronouncement. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’

That’s no message of judgment. There’s no fire and brimstone. But there’s power and mystery and… the message of Advent has now changed.

The old Church traditions of preaching and prayer in Advent followed the guidelines of focusing on Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgment. Awkward and uncomfortable though these topics are in the build-up to Christmas, they also do not serve the seasonal bible readings very well.

Because the inspired scriptures and the story and teaching line that lead us through this season of Advent are much more nuanced and instructive than we may think.

We have now left behind the bumpy judgmental road. I hope that we have taken it to heart, difficult though it is. Now we enter something quite different. The Advent mood has changed. Now it’s ethereal. Enigmatic. Forward-looking, with a sense of celebration yet to come.

Although tradition allows, I am not wearing my rose-pink chasuble today, Advent 3, “Gaudete-Rejoice Sunday.” My vestment is looking too old, but the pink stole can be seen upon the altar. But the old, old custom of marking the change of Advent mood by a temporary change of church color makes so much sense. It reminds us that our journey continues. But now in a different way, and with a new idea.

We’ve spent two Advent Sunday’s being encouraged to look at ourselves. This John the Baptist is now telling us: Look away from me. Look away from your past. Look away even from yourselves. And see who is coming.

O come, O come, Emmanuel! Amen.

1 comment:

Edward Odell said...


I have seen Caravaggio's representation of John twice: once when it was on exhibition in Hartford, and again, utterly by chance when Susan and I were in Rome and it was being shown at the Scuderie del Quirinale in rare moment where many of Caravaggio's works were gathered from all over the world under a single roof.

I have always been moved by these works, most especially the depictions of Paul's conversion and Peter's Crucifixion. I can't help but find myself often thinking of John as a divine madman; the numerous depictions of him clothed in animal skin contribute to it, I suppose.