Four weeks of Advent (one gone already), four weeks of waiting. Mary had nine months of it. But she and we are in this together, however separated by the centuries. She was waiting to take the child she was carrying into her arms and see his Face. We are waiting to renew that birth in our Christmas liturgies. We are waiting for him to come in glory. We are waiting, one by one, to see him face to face when we die, and, please God, be wrapped in the welcome of his merciful arms.
There’s a growing, building momentum, as it were. A great collective waiting.
Icon painters talk of ‘writing’ an icon. And, in today’s readings, that is what Isaiah, the Psalmist, St Paul, and, in the Gospel, John the Baptist, are all doing. They are, literally, writing the icon of the coming Christ. They are outlining, sketching his Face. He is beyond any description, he’s always greater than our imaginings and representations. And yet, if they’re Scriptural, they’re not false and can kindle our desire. ‘It is your face, O Lord, that I seek. Hide not your face from me.’
Let’s focus on the Gospel, on John the Baptist and his portrait of Jesus. ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ ‘Repent’, here, means ‘turn round’. Something tremendous is on its way. We are in our back garden fiddling away in a flower bed, and meanwhile the King is coming up our front drive, is about to knock at the door. ‘Turn round, stop looking in the wrong direction, look here.’ And then, as it were, John starts to sketch. It’s not a Christmas-cardlike, pretty picture we’re asked to look at. It’s lines are stark, strong, scary. It has something of a desert landscape to it. ‘The kingdom of heaven is close at hand’. ‘Kingdom of heaven’ is code for Jesus himself. It’s he who’s near. And he comes with an axe to fell dead trees. He comes with a winnowing fan to blow away chaff. He’s the One ‘behind’ John, looming over his shoulder. He’s the ‘stronger one’, John says. He’s the real Baptiser, and he comes to immerse us in the Holy Spirit and a torrent of fire.
This is hardly ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild’ or the sweet Child in the manger. It’s a Jesus on fire, we could say. And yet it is the one, same Jesus. He is more one than we ever are, and yet he combines such amazing opposites. He’s beautiful and terrifying all at once.
Who is he, then, the Jesus of John? He’s Someone coming to remake the world, to create a new one, to make all things new. That’s why John proclaims him in the desert. It was in the desert, Israel was formed. It was after forty days in the desert Jesus would begin his mission. It was out of waste and void, out of nothingness, God created in the beginning. Jesus is a second Genesis. He’s a new beginning. So, first he has to end the old, sinful world: not just in the Pharisees and Sadducees, but in all of us. And if we cling to that old world, then he’s an axe or a winnowing fan or a bushfire. But if we let go, if we turn round to look at him, run to meet him, then out of our stony hearts children of God will be raised up. Our desert will bloom. In the water of his baptizing, we’ll become fruit-bearing trees. We’ll be grain gathered into his barns, and his wholesome fire will bake us into nourishing bread for the life of the world.
This is what Jesus was for Mary. She was baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire at her Immaculate Conception and again at the Annunciation, again under the Cross and again at Pentecost. This is what Jesus was to the apostles, to Peter and Andrew, James and John, and to Mary Magdalen, Martha, Mary of Bethany, to Stephen and Barnabas and Paul. They became fruit-bearing trees and bread for the hungry. And what Jesus was to them, he wants to be for us: a new beginning, coming out of the desert, changing our bleak lives.
All this happens, of course, undercover. The old world is still around, still on the throne in a sense. But now there’s something else hidden inside it. In the womb of the old world, a new one is gestating. Under the winter, there are signs of spring. In the desert, there are oases. Christ is real. In West Africa, I’ve seen what a Christian monastery can do: literally transform scrub and poverty and short life expectancy into a place of water and trees and cattle and hope. The fiery Christ of John the Baptist re-fashions, re-creates. He brings something better and new to birth. We see it in healthy monasteries, in communities, in a parish where what St Paul says goes, where the Eucharist is really the centre, and we are united in mind and voice, welcoming one another as Christ has welcomed us. We see it in households and families where Christ is acknowledged. We see it in holy individuals, in the saints. These are all the living icons of the Jesus John the Baptist saw coming. They’re the outline of his Face, here below. Always limited, imperfect, written in tears sometimes, waiting for completion, but real.
It’s a beautiful Advent custom to set up a crib in the home. Homes can be mad-houses as we all know. But the crib is quietly there. Or think of the actual birth of Jesus and the manger in the cave: the animal smell, the rowdy pub next door, imperial politics pushing people around. And in the midst of all that, the sign of the new beginning: Jesus, Mary and Joseph, angels and shepherds, adoration and prayer and unexpected joy. So, let’s try and paint our own living icons of the coming Christ. Let’s be places Christ has changed from desert into garden. In our own hearts and together. Let’s try and make our homes and parishes and friendships proofs and presences of Christ, glimpses of grace, Bethlehem and Nazareth, places where, whatever our failures, we can start again. That’s Christmas.
(4 December 2016, St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)