To appreciate our regular Advent readings, it might help to have a split personality. When Paul, for instance, reminds the Philippian community, “The Lord is near!” he’s talking about something quite different from John the Baptizer’s statement, “ . . . One mightier than I is coming.” Though Jesus is the subject of both sentences, the two authors aren’t referring to the same arrival. Luke’s John is obviously talking about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry; Paul is speaking of Jesus’ Second Coming in the Parousia. Neither is saying anything about Christmas.
We must always remember that Christmas is a relatively new feast. Most in the early church believed there was little reason to celebrate Jesus’ birth. What happened in Jerusalem around 30 CE is at the center of our faith. What took place in Bethlehem around 6 BCE in on the periphery of that faith. Only when people began to put Jesus’ death and resurrection in the background did Jesus’ birth become important.
Our current system of configuring years according to before or after Jesus’ birth couldn’t have happened until the fifth century or later. Had someone in the early church been so inspired to date years based on events in Jesus’ life, we today would talk about BJE and AJR (Before Jesus’ Resurrection and After Jesus’ Resurrection).
We really have no idea what the historical John the Baptist said or predicted about Jesus. The only John we encounter in the gospels is the John presented to us by Christian authors. That John evolved into the “precursor” of Jesus - sent by God to prepare Jesus’ way. Scholars constantly remind us that such a picture of the Baptist is more theological that historical. John can only be the Messiah’s forerunner for those who believe Jesus is the Messiah. During the period the gospels were being composed, a good number of Jews thought John, not Jesus, should have been given that title. Our evangelists had one eye on this group when they wrote anything about John. That’s why today Luke has him say, “I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his (Jesus’) sandals.” For Christians, Jesus is the superior; John the inferior.
Yet, listen carefully to John’s response to the crowd’s question, “What should we do?” Sounds a lot like we’d expect Jesus to respond. “Share with the person who has none. . . Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone.. . .“ No wonder scholars presume that, before John’s arrest, Jesus was simply proud to be one of his disciples. They both followed kindred spirits. Only after John’s martyrdom does Jesus go public; only then do we discern a distinction between the two.
Following today’s three readings, it wouldn’t at all hurt to imitate our sacred authors and take our eyes off Christmas for a few moments.
Paul’s imminent Parousia never quite panned out. But even in spite of his miscalculation, the Apostle knows it’s the “peace of God” which Jesus already brought us that makes all the difference in our lives, no matter when the Parousia takes place.
Perhaps Zephania says it best: “Yahweh, our God, is in your midst!” No matter what, God is present to us in the person of the risen Jesus right here and now.
All our Christian authors presumed the risen Jesus is in our midst. Our whole life is changed because of that presence. Reflecting on Jesus present in our daily lives is much more significant than reflecting on what happened in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago.