Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A meditation given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
I grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, two states that are heavily Scandinavian and therefore Lutheran in heritage. In Ashland, my mother directed a handbell choir at one of the three Lutheran churches, which allowed us to witness, first-hand a Saint Lucia ceremony. Saint Lucia, legend tells us, was a devout Christian who was martyred either because she wouldn’t be forced to marry a pagan or she was determined not to be courted by a pagan. In either case, the legend says she either cut out her own eyes or they were cut out as a sign to others not to disobey. God restored her eyes though the myth isn’t clear whether that happened before or after her death. As a saint, she is celebrated on the longest night, which, in Scandinavia, is long indeed. Traditions vary, of course, but most often, the oldest daughter of a household wears a crown of candles on her head and brings coffee and sweets to her parents just before dawn to celebrate the return of light to the earth. At the Lutheran church in Ashland, each year Saint Lucia was chosen among the high school girls of the church by vote. It was apparently quite a controversy when her crown of candles was replaced by a crown of battery-operated lights, much to the dismay of the older members of the church and the relief of the parents of every young girl. My mother’s handbell choir played at a Saint Lucia ceremony so we all attended. I was so jealous! We never did anything cool like that in the Federated Presbyterian, Congregational, United Church of Christ in Ashland.
Advent and Christmas make me remember stories from a time when, looking back, life seemed simpler and gentler and more fun. Like the “Put Christ Back Into Christmas” parade held on the Friday evening of Thanksgiving weekend, complete with floats and marching bands and a late closing of the stores in downtown Ashland. Sometimes I wonder if there will be a woman minister who will look back on her childhood in Hanover and remember the Christmas Mystery with similar nostalgia, being a barefoot, white satin-clad angel, wondering if she would be elected Mary the next year but knowing, deep-down, that wasn’t likely to happen.
Legends and ancient, long-running traditions are both wonderful and contrived. Think of the legends surrounding the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. There is scant evidence, if any, that John and Jesus were related, except in that very distant way that the children of third or even fourth cousins might be identified as related. They knew each other, of course. And they each had loyal followers. John was the son of a priest but he chose to live away from the urban, priestly circles of his father and go, instead, to the wilderness to live. It seemed, to the spiritually hungry, that he might, in fact, be the Messiah, a purist who had abandoned the seductions of the city and the religious strictures of his father for a monastic, disciplined spiritual life. His followers loved him.
The Gospels don’t tell us that John and Jesus were competitors for the hearts and minds of the isolated, beleaguered Jews, longing for a Messiah to come save them and restore them to the glory days of King David. In fact, in an effort to demonstrate that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah, not John, their natal stories say that they were related and that, while still in his mother’s womb, John recognized that the fetal Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Matthew and Luke wanted to establish a relationship between these two men early on.
John was head of a significant Baptist movement. He was charismatic and compelling. He had many, many followers, quite possibly Jesus among them. He preached that baptism was the ritual act of the repentance of sin. He baptized Jesus. When John was murdered, Jesus grieved deeply. It mattered to the writers of the Gospel stories, that John was not Jesus’ competitor for the hearts and minds of the weary Jews. Rather, John is presented as one who clearly awaited the Messiah himself, who announced his imminent arrival, who yielded instantly to Jesus’ authority and power, who proclaimed the news that the Messiah had come in Jesus, the One who would save Israel, who would restore them to God’s heart. It was Jesus, the one whose sandal John was not worthy to untie.
John was both a prophet, pronouncing judgment, and an evangelist, proclaiming the good news that at last, a Savior had come to Israel. Israel needed the good news that God had not abandoned them, that the long silence did not mean God had rejected them, rather, God was preparing a Savior for them. Jesus would be their Redeemer, the One whose life and character, and whole persona would restore them to the heart of God. No one, not even John the Baptist, was an alternative Messiah to Jesus Christ.
Luke sets the stage, doesn’t he? The reign of this emperor, the governorship of that one, rulers here and there, all describe the power of the authority that come with high office. Further, Luke describes those with religious status and position. High priests Annas and Caiaphas were in position. At this same time, when heads of state could easily be identified and religious leaders enjoyed status and visibility, when governments defined parameters and the seats of power were all occupied by public, powerful priests and governors, the Word of God came to John in the wilderness. Far away from the centers of power and prestige, unnoticed by the governors, dismissed by the priests, God called John to prophesy. I once heard Bill Coffin speak of this passage in an off-the-cuff remark during a seminar about peace-making and the environment, one of Bill’s many bon mots I have never forgotten. “The Word of God comes to those farthest from the centers of power”.
What, then, does it mean to us that God’s Word came to John in the wilderness, that the prophetic Word of God, calling for righteousness, comes to those who are on the edges of power, who live far away from the action, so to speak, who are not in the center of things. What does it mean that Mary’s song, in the hearing of her kinswoman Elizabeth, while both were still pregnant, pays tribute to God who has “ scattered the proud… brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly… filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty...” (Luke 1:51-53) What does it mean that the power of that one who shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), will be to transform the lives of the poor, the sinners, the disenfranchised, the outcasts, the workers, the prostitutes and the lepers? What does it mean that the One to whom we give our loyalty and our love, for whose birth we wait will demand everything from us?
We need to pay close attention to the myths and legends, the speeches that lead us into war, the traditions that tell us what ideal womanhood is, the poetry that cuts through power and prestige, the words that work on us subliminally, and remember that whether the light comes to us on the heads of our oldest daughters or in the increasing number of lights on the Advent wreath, there is a difference between light and illumination. Of the two, I’m pretty sure God prefers the latter. Amen.