This Sunday, the Radical Meaning of Christmas
This Sunday is the Second Week of Advent, Year A, and the Gospel compares and contrasts two approaches to Christmas, John’s and the Jewish leaders.
If you’re like me, this might be uncomfortable. You might see yourself more in the Jewish leaders than in John.
John the Baptist’s style is radical — and radical means “from the roots.” The Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ is complacent.
The difference between the two could not be sharper.
- John lives in the desert, the Pharisees and Sadducees live in the city.
- John’s rough appearance shows his reliance on providence, the Jewish leaders wear their piety for all to see, in their tassels and phylacteries.
- John teaches that no one is worthy of the mighty one to come; the Jewish leaders teach that they are privileged sons of Abraham.
With this Gospel the Church asks, forcefully: As Christmas approaches, which are we more like? Does the thought of Christmas challenge us — Almighty God tearing the veil between heaven and earth and coming down among us, with all his immense expectations? Or does it thoughtlessly comfort us? Does the prospect of Christ’s coming make us feel an overwhelming need to change our hearts, or does it reassure us that everything is okay?
Does the thought of facing God fill us with fear and trembling, or do we feel like he is harmless, and kind of likes us anyway, so there is no big deal?
It’s clear which description fits John. “Even now, the ax lies at the root of the trees,” John says. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“His winnowing fan is in his hand,” he adds. “He will clear the threshing floor and gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This is the jarring Christmas message of a man who understands far better than we do exactly who Jesus Christ is and what he expects — and where we stand.
The first reading is a much more comforting vision of Christmas.
If the Gospel shows the consequences of rejecting Christ, the first reading shows the consequence of accepting the “shoot” from the “stump of Jesse.”
“The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him,” says Isaiah: “a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.”
His reign will bring the punishment John foretells, as he “strikes the ruthless.” But it will also restore the order lost by Adam and Eve’s disobedience.
“The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them,” Isaiah says. “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain.”
It is as radical a vision of Christmas as John’s. On the one hand, destruction of all who reject God’s will; on the other, a world where the Father’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven — where “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace for ever,” as the Psalm puts it.
The message for us is the same. God is doing something radical at Christmas — and we should, also.
God is doing the unthinkable by becoming man. So we have to do the unthinkable by becoming godly. As the Catechism says, “The Son of God became man so that we might become God.”
Paul gives practical tips for how to live this radical call without having to resort to moving into a cave and wearing animal hides.
“By endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope,” he says, as we “think in harmony with one another” and with “one accord” and “one voice” “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Endurance” and “encouragement” in the original are strong words. Paul says the Scriptures and communion with the Church are the first place we find the fortitude to withstand the unendurable find hope when all hope is gone.
But the roots of Christmas run even deeper.
John the Baptist said God can “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones” and that the one to come “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Paul tells baptized Christians that we are those new children of Abraham, now carrying “the promise of the patriarchs.”
The Church, in fact, teaches that we carry promises greater than the promise of Abraham. At Baptism we receive the same seven gifts of the Holy Spirit that Isaiah identifies with the Messiah: Wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fear of the Lord and piety. The sacrament of confession renews and restores the grace of baptism and communion strengthens it.
So, don’t be a Pharisee this Christmas.
Don’t think of this high holy day as merely a day of fun and festivity or pious feelings of self-satisfaction.
The roots of Christmas run deep, and only a radical response will do — a re-commitment to the Word of God, the truths of the faith, and the encounter with Christ in each sacrament.