Text: Luke 1:57-80 (the birth of John the Baptist)
Advent is a journey towards Christmas with its promises of love and abundance. Our souls long for the family gatherings, food, and beautiful winter vistas of an ideal Christmas. But the journey itself has its own joyous rewards. Christmas and Advent are about comfort and joy. My reflection is on how the two can describe a life that is both spirited and soulful.
Today we heard a reading about the birth of Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Like Jesus, John’s conception is a miraculous one. John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, are an elderly and previously infertile couple.
Luke doesn’t give us details about Elizabeth’s pregnancy except to say that her six-month old fetus leaps in her womb when her cousin Mary — pregnant with Jesus — comes to visit.
Luke does tell us that Elizabeth’s pregnancy is a time of trial for her husband Zechariah. The Angel Gabriel strikes Zechariah mute when he expresses skepticism at the news that his elderly wife will become pregnant. In today’s story, we hear that nine months later Zechariah regains his voice when he agrees with Elizabeth to name their son John.
Today’s reading describes a moment of joy for the parents and for the friends who have come to celebrate with them. The dangers of pregnancy and childbirth are over. The baby is healthy. The father, Zechariah, can talk again. Everyone can relax and experience the joy of the birth of John.
But then Zechariah uses his newfound voice to sing; and his song predicts that John will lead a life focused on redemption in the shadow of death. After the song, the narrator notes that John will live out his days in the desert until he appears as a prophet by the Jordan River 30 years later.
John’s birth is an occasion for comfort and joy, but his life will end in a confrontation with religious and political elites. Shortly after John baptizes his cousin Jesus in the Jordan, King Herod arrests and executes him.
Like Jesus, John lives an important life. But it is far from an easy or comfortable one; and so, Zechariah’s song quickly leaves behind the joy of birth to sketch a spirited vision of wilderness, death, and salvation.
As followers of Jesus, our lives are often engaged in spirited pursuits. We reach out to neighbours in need. We struggle for peace with justice. We proclaim Good News of healing and enlightenment. But we also crave the simple joys promised by Christmas. Christmas may not be the most important season on the church calendar, but it is the one that many of us look forward to the most.
So even though today’s reading moves on quickly from the joyous news of the birth of John to the challenges of his life, we may want to pause at birth for a moment.
Birth is central to the charm of Christmas. As members of the church, we know the difficulties of Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps this is why we make such a big deal of his birth each Christmas Eve and then spend two weeks reflecting on it before moving into the Season of Epiphany with its stories of danger, flight and struggle.
Elizabeth and Zechariah had stopped hoping for a child in their old age. Luke says that they become parents by divine intervention. Parenting is one of life’s chief joys as well as one of the most challenging tasks we undertake. And sometimes we may need the simple joys of Christmas to give us the strength to continue in life and ministry.
The quote I chose for the bulletin today is about the joys of the journey. Taken from Marie Kondo’s 2014 bestseller called “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” her phrase “Get rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy” has become a rallying cry for many of her fans.
I haven’t read her book, but when I notice the jumble of papers on my desk, I imagine that I could benefit from her ideas.
Decluttering seems like an Advent activity to me. Advent is a season of preparation and repentance: a time for silence, as with Zechariah; for emptiness; and for contemplation. As Kondo suggests, joy can be found in getting rid of things. But it is a joy that might be discomfiting for many of us.
Instead, we may prefer the soulful comforts of Christmas. Christmas brings up images of roaring fires in the hearth; turkey with all the trimmings; and happy family members gathering to sing carols. Christmas is a time to add joyous clutter to our lives and not subtract from it.
A carol that fits with this idea is “God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen” and its repeated refrain “O tidings of comfort and joy.” Spiritual joy can be found in Advent journeys through the wildernesses of our lives. But it is the promise of Christmas feasts with family that provides at least some of the motivation for that journey.
Of course, not all of us experience an ideal Christmas. The focus on gifts, family harmony, and abundance at Christmas can be difficult for those of us living with poverty, broken relationships, or loss.
When the soulful joys of Christmas are not available, I pray that we remember the spirited joys of the journey. May we remember that the yin and yang of journey and arrival, of weeding and acquiring, and of giving and receiving do not have a necessary endpoint.
In lives of challenges and opportunities, sometimes our souls will be well-fed by a joyous Christmas feast and at other times we will go lacking. In a similar manner, sometimes our spirits will thrive in the darkness of Advent and at other times they may shrink from the calls to repentance we hear from a Luke, a Zechariah, or a John the Baptist.
Wherever we find ourselves on the pendulum between comfort and joy this Christmas, I pray that the stories of the births of John and Jesus may rest in our hearts and help us be present to the challenging but joy-filled work of ministry in all the many Advents and Christmases that bless our lives.
May it be so. Amen.