Scripture reading for today:

Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79, Philippians 1:3-11, Luke 3:1-6

Conflict at Christmas

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me… But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap…he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” – Malachi 3

“And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God…” – Luke 1

“John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance…’ ” – Luke 3

There’s something about the way our culture enters into the Christmas season that shines a harsh light on the imperfections in our lives. Advertising and Christmas-themed entertainment all seem to paint pictures of happy, harmonious, prosperous families all celebrating together. The stories always have a happy ending. Even the way we talk about Christmas in church is often a romanticized picture of miraculous births and spiritual breakthroughs. There’s something that happens around Christmas that makes our struggles that much more bleak.

The reality of the Christmas saga is more balanced. The Bible is actually brutally honest about life and struggle. The life story of John the Baptist begins at Christmas with some miraculous family breakthroughs but winds up being a story of almost unremitting struggle that ends unresolved.

I imagine a short film about John the Baptist would begin with him in prison. A dark cave illuminated only by a flickering torch. In the shadows, a man with long ragged hair and beard that seem to blend in with a garment of hair. He looks like a large man, but that’s an illusion caused by the mass of hair because as you look at his arms, they are skin and bone with strings of muscle, covered with scars. The look in his eyes is one of pure hopelessness.

The screen flashes back to a few moments before when his friends came to visit. “Well, what did he say?” the prisoner asks. His friends look ashamed and shuffle their feet back and forth. Finally one musters up the strength to say, “Jesus said that the evidence speaks for itself – the blind see, the deaf hear and the lame walk.” “That’s it? Nothing about getting me out of prison or saving my life? Nothing about overturning this putrid degenerate of a king?” “Nothing, John. I’m sorry.”

The movie cuts to a further flashback of John’s childhood – the miracle of the angel delivering great news to his father, Zechariah in the temple: “Your wife WILL be pregnant, and you WILL have a son, even at this late stage of your life!” The meeting between Elizabeth and Mary, where John leapt in the womb upon “meeting” Jesus, also in the womb. The happiness of his birth. The flashbacks become darker as they enter into imagining what John’s upbringing might have been like. They show a confrontation between Zechariah and Herod’s soldiers as they came looking for the “miracle baby.” We see that Zechariah was perhaps the first casualty as Herod orders the killing of every child under two years old as the result of the visit of the wise men. We are witness to Elizabeth’s grief-stricken flight upon hearing of Zechariah’s death. John’s growing up years might have already been in the wilderness, learning to scrape together a living from the desert, and begging from strangers just to get by. We see the film-maker’s explanation that perhaps John didn’t wear camel hair clothes and eat locusts and honey by some religious choice, but rather because that’s all he could come by. The flashbacks enter into John’s adolescence, where he practiced his critiques of the religious and political establishment at home, on his mother, and the arguments that resulted.

They move into John’s adulthood, where he establishes himself as a prophet, and people are streaming to hear what he has to say; they actually want to know how to become better people and make a better world! These might have been John’s ministry glory days. Then the encounter with his cousin, Jesus, where John’s dreams come true. The Messiah has come! Here He is! He will make all things right. We see John’s humble acceptance of the growth of Jesus’ ministry, at the expense of his own popularity. We see the effect that John’s words of challenge have on Herod – John winds up in jail.

And then the movie slams back into John’s “present” as he walks towards his execution. Is he still hoping for rescue, or has all hope gone from his eyes? Is he proud, making eye contact with all who watch? Or is his head bowed under the weight of disillusionment? The final scene of the short film of John the Baptist’s life is the flash of the headsman’s axe.

There’s a lot of marginalization in John the Baptist’s life. A lot of unresolved pain to relate to. Feels a little too depressing to talk about at Christmas, doesn’t it? Kinda kills the mood of joy and happiness. And yet important to address…essential to address at an idealizing, marginalizing time like Christmas. The Bible never shies away from the harshness of life. The Kingdom of God is never afraid to admit that many things go unresolved in this world. Jesus’ ministry was never about the perfect rescue, the perfect life in the here and now.

Christmas advertising seems to promise happiness and offers perfection – if we can just buy the right products, or have the right kind of family celebrations. Reality is usually far from that ideal. This Sunday in Advent, I invite you to reflect on the unresolved conflicts in your life, the unanswered questions, the plaguing doubts. Whenever you are confronted with the “Christmas ideal,” invite the Messiah of the Margins to be with you in your unresolved-ness. Allow Jesus to enter into your mess. Receive His comfort and His hope that someday, in His Kingdom, all things will be made right.

This Sunday in Advent, I invite you to reflect on the unresolved conflicts in your life, the unanswered questions, the plaguing doubts ... and allow Jesus to enter into your mess. Click To Tweet

“Jesus, some images of Christmas feel like an attack. I feel less than, set aside, ignored. My struggles are getting in the way of my ability to put on a happy face and celebrate with everyone else. Thank you that you are not afraid of my flaws, my struggles, my darkness. I need you. I need your love, your comfort, your encouragement. I need to tell me not to give up. Please come and be with me in my time of need. Thank you. Amen.”

Thank you for reading the New Leaf Advent Reader, a collection of reflections from writers across Canada. If you are enjoying the reader, sign up to receive the readings in your inbox each day here: SIGN UP And please share this reflection with your friends and family who might also enjoy it.

photo credit: Fabrizio Verrecchia