How would you feel if you got a Christmas card that read like this:
Our thoughts of you at this time of the year are best expressed in the words of John the Baptist, 'You brood of Vipers! The axe is laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be thrown into the fire.' Happy Christmas from Fr. Murchadh."
I suppose we would add Fr. Murchadh, or whoever sent it, to our list of x-friends!
Advent has really become the time of getting ready for Christmas in the sense of buying the gifts we want to give, going to office parties, etc. But this is quite different from the original message. John the Baptist was sent by God to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus and his message was pretty strong. ‘Repent, confess your sins, change your lives and look for happiness in the right place, that is, in God.’ This is the part of preparing for Christmas that is easy to overlook. We want the celebration of Christmas, but we don’t necessarily want to have to repent. Just leave us alone and let us celebrate. We want absolution, but without having to confess. We want the love and blessing of God without having to follow the commandments. We want faith on our terms. That is called ‘cheap grace’. It is empty and it is not the message of God.
The message of God is a wonderful one, but is also a very demanding one. We can not come and pick what we like. Instead we come and ask what is required of us. That is what the people who came to John asked: ‘what must we do?’ To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower. It is understandable that we are not used to thinking this way, because our world encourages us to make sure things are as we would like them. If you’re not happy, move on. But this is not the message of the Gospels. In the Gospel we listen to what it is that God asks of us. We follow God on God’s terms and not our terms.
Jesus said that John the Baptist was the greatest man ever born of woman. He was totally focused on God. He knew what was important and he simply passed on the message he was told to pass on, but it cost him his life. He was beheaded by Herod for speaking the truth. We don’t always want to hear the truth because it is often demanding and challenges us to change.
We want to be able to celebrate Christmas and rightly so. But if we are serious about celebrating Christmas as a Christian feast, then let us not forget the message of John the Baptist. ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is close at hand.’ ‘God is coming: get ready.’ The term ‘repent’ can also mean ‘change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.’ That is a particularly powerful message at this time in history. So many people have been looking for happiness in the world, but now everything has collapsed and many have been bitterly disappointed and left with a feeling that all is gone. However, the Lord is telling us to turn to him for happiness. It is only in God that we will find true happiness. The world will disappoint us; God will not.
The most important preparation we can make for Christmas is the interior preparation, the change of heart, the confession of sins. And yes, most of us don’t like to have to confess our sins, we think we shouldn’t have to, but this is what God asks us to do. The celebration of Christmas is meaningless if we skip the kind of preparation that God asks us to make and sadly for many people it has become meaningless. It doesn’t have to be meaningless, because it is the celebration of something very wonderful, the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus. The Lord is still waiting to come to each of us:
I stand at the door and knock. If anyone here’s my voice and opens the door to me, I will come in and sit down to eat with him, and he with me. (Rev 3:20)
Those words are from the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible and this message is repeated all through the Bible in different ways. The Lord wants to be at the centre of what we do, but we are the only ones who can allow that to happen.
‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is close at hand.’