A reflection on the Sunday readings for December 6, 2020 — the Second Sunday of Advent
Today, December 6, is the feast of St. Nicholas, who is of course known in popular culture as Santa Claus. Santa Claus is the iconic Christmas figure for children in the US, and I don’t think it is a bad thing. St. Nicholas—the bishop of Myra (present-day Demre in Turkey) in the early 4th century—is a great model of Christian faith and generosity.
Nicholas lost both of his parents as a young man and used his inheritance to help others. As a bishop he was known for caring for the poor and the sick. One famous story about him is about when he helped a man with the marriage of his three daughters. The father did not have enough money to pay their dowries and was worried they would be forced into prostitution. Three times, Saint Nicholas secretly went to their house at night, put a bag of money inside, and left. Another story that has been passed down is the time he saved three innocent men who were falsely imprisoned and sentenced to death. He intervened and freed them just before they were to be executed.
I am glad that our children have such a wonderful saint to look up to. Children might not be as interested in the story of the real Saint Nicholas, as long as they receive their nerf-guns and Xboxes, but that’s children. Let children be children.
What about the rest of us? The Advent season gives us another iconic figure, the hero of today’s Gospel reading: John the Baptist. Yes, at some point we do have to grow up from Santa Claus to John the Baptist. While they both lead us to Christ, we cannot be children forever. I like to think of John the Baptist as the “Santa Claus for adults.” We can think of this progression towards John the Baptist as a model of moving towards a more mature faith.
Santa’s Clothing and John’s Clothing
I learned recently that Santa Claus’ red outfit has more to do with the Coca-Cola Company than with the story of St. Nicholas. In fact, in many other parts of the world, St. Nicholas is depicted in a bishop’s garment. But then there is John the Baptist. “John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey” (Mk 1:6).
What do John’s clothing and diet say about him? It tells us that he was an ascetic. Scripture scholars tell us that most likely he belonged to a Jewish sect called the Essenes. The Essenes lived a communal life and dedicated themselves to voluntary poverty, ritual purity, and asceticism. But there was something even more special about John. In those days, he attracted people like nobody else. Matthew tells us in today’s Gospel reading that “people from the whole Judean countryside and people from Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized in the Jordan as they acknowledged their sins” (Mk 1:5).
We might say that in this way he was a bit like Santa Claus. However, unlike Santa Claus, who rewards children with gifts for good behavior, John the Baptist invites us to take a deeper look at life. John the Baptist calls us to conversion. John the Baptist invites us to look towards the one he points to: Jesus, the Christ! John’s asceticism should inspire us to focus on things that are important. Especially this year as we endure the pandemic, John’s asceticism and his austerity can help us to keep it simple.
Glitz and glamor, tinsel and lights, gifts and merrymaking—they all have their place, but let us not remain childish. Rather, as individuals and families, let us also look intensely in the direction John the Baptist points. Let us spend some time taking a deeper look at life, evaluating our priorities, and looking at the direction our life is heading. Ask yourself this question: “Is my life headed in the same direction John the Baptist is pointing?”
Santa’s Message and John’s Message
At least in popular culture, Santa Claus’s message is. “You better watch out. You better not cry. You’d better not pout. I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town!” For adults, the message of John the Baptist is very similar, except it is Jesus who is coming to town! His message today is, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mk 1:3).
In this way, John continues Isaiah’s prophetic message, which we heard in today’s first reading. The prophetic ministry of John the Baptist—even though it is a continuation of the prophetic tradition—focuses on the immediate preparation for the coming of the Messiah. We see that urgency more clearly in the Lukan version of John the Baptist’s ministry. “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Lk 3:4), and “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (Lk 3:8), he cried out.
People heard his call. Various groups of people came to him and asked this all-important question, “What then should we do?” (Lk 3:10). Crowds, tax-collectors, even soldiers came and asked him, “What then should we do? (Lk 3:12,14). To the crowds John said, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise (Lk 3:11). To the tax collectors he said, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed!” To the soldiers he said, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages!” (Lk 3:14).
As parents and adults, we tell our children, “You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout! Santa Claus is coming to town.” And to ourselves, we say, “And what should we do?” This is what separates the children from the adults. Like the people asked John, today we ask ourselves, “And what should we do?” Reflect upon this question this week. It is a sure way to “prepare the way of the Lord.”
Children’s Advent and the Advent of Disciples
For many people in today’s culture (and especially for children), the Advent journey ends with Santa’s gifts on Christmas day. What was on the list and what did Santa deliver? As long there is no discrepancy between the list and the gifts, all is well. Once children receive their gifts, they are finished with Santa for a whole year. Poor St. Nick! With John it is different. The Advent journey doesn’t end with John. He points to someone even greater, saying, “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the holy Spirit” (Mk 1:7-8).
John points to Christ and John leads us to Christ. He brings us the one who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. The joy, the peace, and the love we experience from the Christ is much different than the momentary thrill and happiness children feel when they open their gifts. Neither John nor Christ are forgotten for the rest of the year. Christmas season will be followed soon by Ordinary Time, when John the Baptist will be martyred for the sake the righteousness, and Christ will begin his ministry. It will be followed by Lent when the events of our salvation will be played out in human history. John’s “Lamb of God” will lead us to eternity itself. But it all begins here today with the prophet’s cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” (Mk 1:3).
Let us prepare the way of the Lord—for Christmas, for the rest of the year, and for eternity. This is what separates children from adults, believers from revelers, disciples from nominal Christians.
Isaiah, John the Baptist, and St. Nicholas all lead us to the same Christ, the Lamb of God. This is the “Lamb of God” who we receive in the Eucharist. Children, young men and women, and adults, let us prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.
Image: The Preaching of St. John the Baptist by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566. Yelkrokoyade Taken in 20/07/2013, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15947876