by Jill Baker.
In Luke 1 (v 17), the elderly priest, Zechariah, is told by an angel that he is to become a father and that his son, John the Baptist, will ‘make ready a people prepared for the Lord’. With just one week to go before Christmas Day, I wonder what that phrase might mean to us today? The fact that you are finding time to read this may mean that you are indeed ‘prepared’ for Christmas – or it may mean you have given up!
The season of Advent – only 22 days this year as Christmas Day falls on a Monday – is a season of penitence and preparation in the church year. To many this can feel as though we are out of sync with the world around us; far from a season of fasting, Christmas parties are held throughout Advent then, just as the legitimate feasting season of the Twelve Days of Christmas is getting into its stride we hit 1st January, New Year Resolutions kick in and people commit to a “dry January”! Does it matter? The liturgical calendar is not something for which I would go to the stake, but the rhythm of feasting and fasting, preparation and celebration, penitence and jubilation is, to me, a helpful and life-giving rhythm.
Nonetheless, despite our best intentions, for many of us Advent preparations may become largely practical preparations; making a cake, buying gifts and cards, decorating the house, stocking up on food and drink. It is strangely ironic that a consumerist world which has lost sight of the origins of Christmas can become a harsh taskmaster at this time of year, adding more and more requirements to what is deemed essential for a perfect Christmas.
We may be aided in our struggle to ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ by the plethora of Advent resources now available. The first book of Advent readings I came across, back in 1983, was Delia Smith’s ‘A Feast for Advent’. In the introduction she raises precisely this dilemma, comparing our situation to Exodus 5 where, as Moses requests leave for the people to go into the wilderness and ‘celebrate a festival’ (v1), Pharaoh’s response is to force the slaves to collect their own straw for brick-making, to make their burdens heavier so they will forget about God; ‘How significant it is that at Christmas we find ourselves so easily caught up in twice our normal workload, so that we too have no time to listen to the message of freedom.’1
In a similar vein, Walter Brueggemann in ‘Sabbath as Resistance’ talks about the ‘contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety’2 – in which our observance of Sabbath (or we might say, Advent) is an important counter cultural stand. There is a real danger that even when we do deliberately opt out of ‘being productive’ for a time, we remain almost overwhelmed by the anxiety of the ‘to do’ list.
All this is very far from the experience of the key players in the drama of Incarnation. Elizabeth and Zechariah would not have Christmas cards, cakes or crackers in mind as they pondered what the angel might mean by ‘A people prepared for the Lord’. The earlier verses of the chapter give us some pointers; almost the first fact we learn about John the Baptist is that he must drink no wine or strong drink. That might prove rather a surprise to Cosmopolitan magazine whose December editorial begins with the words, ‘As the year reaches its alcohol-saturated finale…’.
Instead John will be ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’ and in this power, will have three key tasks, all concerned with turning hearts and minds. He will ‘turn many people… to the Lord their God’, he will ‘turn the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous’ and he will ‘turn the hearts of parents to their children’. In this, perhaps, Luke’s record comes closer to the hopes of Cosmopolitan, whose editor continues; ‘…our thoughts turn to loved ones, lack of sleep and things we really want to find at the end of our beds come 25th December’. Even in the sophisticated world of glossy magazines, it is something of a relief to see that human relationship comes first. For John the Baptist too, ‘a people prepared’ is about our human relationships above all.
Looking again at the story around which all our preparations (or lack of them) are centred at this time of year, I am heartened to see wide diversity. The magi have been preparing for years, observing celestial movements and patterns on a huge map of time and space and selecting symbolic gifts of great value to take to the Christ Child. For the shepherds, however, it is definitely a ‘come as you are’ party – an ordinary night becomes extraordinary and they rush into Bethlehem – maybe snatching up a lamb to keep it safe and then offering it to the Holy Family… but maybe not!
Whether we feel ‘prepared’ or not this year we will be welcome at the manger next Monday. Perhaps too, like John, we are called to be heart-turners in these final days of Advent.
1 Delia Smith, A Feast for Advent (1985, Bible Reading Fellowship)
2 Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance (2014, Westminster John Knox Press)