From Our Archives
Debie Thomas, Who Are You? (2020); Liz Milner, Poetry From Prison: Advent Freedom (2017); Joan Bigwood, Prophets Among Us (2014); Dan Clendenin, Tears of Despair, Dreams of Laughter (2011); and Dan Clendenin, The Subversive Song of the Mother of God (2008).
For Sunday December 17, 2023
Third Sunday in Advent
Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:47–55
1 Thessalonians 5:16–24
John 1:6–8, 19–28
This Week's Essay
I begin with something that's both strange and obvious. Neither the gospel of Mark for last week, nor the gospel of John for this week, say anything at all about the birth of Christ. How are we supposed to celebrate Christmas when the lectionary readings don't even mention it? Did the fledgling communities for which those two gospels were originally written in the decades after Jesus not celebrate Christmas? Why the silence?
I'll leave those speculative questions to others, and instead move from the strange to the fascinating. The gospels of Mark and John are very different in both style and content, but in addition to not mentioning the birth or infancy narratives, they both say the same two things about Jesus in the very first paragraphs of their gospels.
First, they both quote Isaiah 40:3 to say that John the Baptizer was the one who would “prepare the way of the Lord and make straight paths for him” (Mark 1:3 = John 1:23). John was not the light himself despite all the speculation and commotion surrounding him. He was not the Messiah, he was not Elijah, or even one of the prophets. Rather, he was "a man sent from God" whose task was to be "a lonely voice in the wilderness." He was a "witness" who gave "testimony" to light in the darkness. He was a forerunner who prepared the way for Jesus.
And second, both gospels use identical language about John the Baptizer to suggest a paradox: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (Mark 1:7 = John 1:27). In contemporary vernacular we might say, "I'm not worthy to lick his boots." Both gospels emphasize that even though Jesus was younger than John, he was nonetheless pre-eminent in power and prestige.
John's self-effacing ministry of preparation and witness, which emphasized the pre-eminence of Jesus, included a stupendous pronouncement. Christmas is about something far more radical than a baby born in a barn, tired cliches, or sentimental stereotypes. The birth of Jesus foreshadows something unspeakably joyful, even cosmic. John says that Jesus is the one on whom all the pain, sins, and sorrows of the world have been laid. He is the "lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."
I love how the English poet Sir John Betjeman (1906–1984) captures this stupendous claim in his poem Christmas:
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare —
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
In other words, the birth announcement of Jesus is really a salvation announcement. John the Baptizer came to witness, to testify, to proclaim and to announce this good news of salvation for all the world.
Very similar to John the Baptist, Isaiah 61 for this week describes the prophet as "a man sent from God to proclaim good news." He too is a voice who bears witness in a time of darkness and devastation. The Spirit of God called Isaiah to proclaim comfort to all those who mourned, to the displaced refugees in "ruined cities." Could ancient poetry sound anymore contemporary? In his very first public act, in Luke 4 Jesus read Isaiah 61 out loud in the temple to describe the meaning and message of his own life. He is the ultimate Sent One who proclaims and embodies divine comfort for human sorrow.
Mary proclaims in her Magnificat, “the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49). The Psalmist declares that God's deliverance was like an incredible dream that evoked joy and laughter, causing it to be said among many nations “the Lord has done great things for them” (Psalm 126:3).
In my simple but close reading of the four lectionary texts for this week, I hear a combination of the political and the personal, the prophetic and the pastoral. They announce a joyful and celebratory message that most anyone would love to hear, namely, a promise and proclamation that God sees, he hears, and he will act for those who most need his help. With the birth of Jesus, God is with us, and in particular he is with:
- the poor
- the brokenhearted
- the captive
- the imprisoned
- the mourning
- the grieving
- the faint in spirit
- the ruined
- the devastated
- the shamed and disgraced
- the weeping
- the lowly
- the hungry
Riding the trolley here in San Diego recently, it was striking to observe the faces of people — tired, sleeping, worn out, silent. I would eavesdrop on conversations and was fascinated how they mirrored my own anxieties — worries about kids, problems on the job, canceled appointments to be rescheduled, a sick family member, financial pressures, etc.
We all face similar struggles, and we all need a word of testimony this advent, like Isaiah about a God who "comforts those who mourn," or the Psalmist who says that “God has done great things for me, and He will do the same for you.” Or Mary's Magnificat that dreams of a world that's more just than ours with its gross inequities of wealth and power.
Last week the Yale poet Christian Wiman released a new book with a marvelous subtitle, Zero at the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair (December 5). In our world of wars in Darfur, Ukraine and Israel, it's easy to be seduced by despair. Doubt and despair can feel authentic, says Wiman, and we can even make it a sort of idol. We should never turn a blind eye to the sin and sorrow of the world, but there is at Christmas a proclamation of hope amidst the despair, a testimony of light in the darkness — Immanuel, God is with us.
Sr. M. Chrysostom
The winds were scornful,
And gathering Angels
A burdened Mother
Did not mind
That only animals
For who in all the world
That God would search out
Sr. M. Chrysostom, O.S.B.
Cyril Robert, Mary Immaculate: God's Mother and Mine. New York: Marist Press, 1946.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org