Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Who Was He?

Into this strange and often terrible season, on its second Sunday to be precise, walks John the Baptist. John the Baptist is as strange as anything that Advent can throw in our direction. Indeed, he may be one of the most misunderstood characters in our whole sacred story. He’s a man from another age -- and he was from another age when he first appeared 2,000 years ago -- wild and hairy, who makes his home at the edges of civilization. John cries out with ancient words, “Repent! The Kingdom of Heaven is coming.” What on earth does that mean? What Kingdom? What are we to hope for? A new political order? A theocracy? A peaceful revolution? As many of my seminary professors hinted, is the Kingdom of Heaven some hierarchical idea that we in the modern democracies should be suspicious of? John doesn’t tell us. He simply says, if you want to know, you’ve got to meet me halfway. Come, enter the waters and be baptized. It can’t be explained. It must be experienced. If you want to see what’s coming, you’ve got to start with me.

Although John is an essential character in the Jesus story, in the popular imagination at least, there can hardly be two more different men: John, fulminating and wild, his hair a ragged tangle about his face and Jesus, who is always shown always dressed in white robes, floating beatifically down to the river with luminous grace and sanctity. The one fierce, the other loving. The one representing the prophetic voice of the “Old Testament God,” the other the loving touch of “the New Testament God.” Or so, in my constant search for comfortable categories, or, to be more blunt, in my constant search for comfort, I would like to think. But there are not two gods. There is one God. And John tells me that, yes, all that love is there, but I’m not going to find it, not really, until I repent.

And so comes John to call me to do just that. He stands with a light turned right on my cherished inner darkness. Am I surprised that in the movies, he’s rather unpleasant character, yelling at the Pharisees and the Saduccees like every religious nut who prowls Sproul Plaza or Grand Avenue? Isn't that just what my inner darkness, shielding my eyes, wants me to think? How can this be the path to the beautiful Christ Child, beloved by all, sleeping in the straw as the silent stars go by? Either there is something very odd going on, or I do not get John the Baptist, I do not get him at all.

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