Something called “Christmas” arrived weeks ago. We all know this, don’t we? Decorations, department store sales, and economic forecasts of the ‘season’ have been part of our common parlance since Halloween. It seems a little silly to pretend that the church or anyone else can slow the consumer behemoth down. Something called ‘Christmas’ has replaced what used to be thought of as the church’s celebration of the birth of her Messiah. No amount of sulking on our part will change inflated Santas and nondescript holiday music into anything close to the moment God united himself eternally to our human existence in the flesh of Mary’s son. But herein lies the scandal of Advent: whatever it is that we are doing or preparing when it comes to Christmas, what we actually get in the arrival of Jesus is not the Christmas spirit or the holiday gift exchange; what we receive is eyes to see through the darkness of early dawn that in Mary’s son the fullness of God is pleased to dwell. This might not fulfill our sentimental dreams of a winter wonderland, but it just might knock some sense into our hopes for December 25.

When we begin to talk about preparing for Jesus, the voice that speaks most loud and clear is that of the Baptizer. John the Baptist is the go-to guy when the church wants to deflate modern holiday expectations and pour water over our Yule-tide logs. He is just that kind of character. Well, he is a prophet after all! In Christian art and iconography, he is often the bony figure holding his bony finger in the general direction of Jesus. We have to go through John before we can glimpse the One who is to come. Yet the Baptizer is no foil to the preferred sweetness of baby Jesus wrapped in clothe. His grisly manner, especially against the religious experts, demonstrates that buried behind his wit is knowledge; knowledge of who is coming and in whom God arrives. There is content to the Baptizer. We are wise to give John our attention.

His message is straight from the straight-talk express: I am not he, but he who is coming is like light. That would not be straight talk if what John meant were that Jesus was some effusive power that shines but does not do much else. Light is good, light is helpful. When there is a power outage, light is even desired. Light also makes visible what was once in darkness. As a metaphor, we speak of being enlightened: enlightened to see life and to see it truthfully.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the great thirteenth-century Christian thinker, used this more metaphorical approach when considering John the Baptist’s use of light in reference to Jesus. Aquinas spoke of light as not only making a darkened room visible, but also making our knowledge of what the room holds possible. Light reveals. For John the Baptist, the advent of Jesus shines the divine light on our world, but also, at a deeper level, makes us able to learn what our world is all about. The Baptizer, in his own idiomatic way, is inviting us into a kind of life where we see ourselves and our world for what it is: the site of God’s activity and the recipient of God’s holy presence by means of Mary’s son. What John does is point us to this truth. In Jesus, God arrives like the morning’s first light. The question is: are our eye trained to see him?

Our Advent witness can seem like another manifestation of religious nostalgia if it is divorced from that special kind of knowledge we call faith. I am not talking about faith as something we use when our human reason runs out of ideas; rather faith is believing something because God has revealed it. Faith is a gift from God to see and understand what God wants us to learn. The Baptizer, in this vein, says to the religious experts, “among you stands one whom you do not know.” The experts may have known who Jesus was, or perhaps even, what Jesus claimed to be about. But this is like turning the light on in a room. Yes, they see him, but little else. John, however, is concerned that the experts and anyone listening might actually go deeper. He desires that we see life, the universe, and everything as God sees it. This is what having faith means. As it turns out, the remainder of John’s gospel will highlight what it means to see Jesus as God, and what it means to miss this altogether. For the Baptizer, to be blind to the promises of God in the flesh is to blind to the world.

Those who see Jesus see with the light of faith, see the world as God’s beloved creation. There is no Hollywood special effects or magic involved, no squinting of the eyes or turning the head just right in order to see the world ‘better.’ Faith equally avoids seeing the world with rose-colored glasses or viewing life as just a series of cold, hard facts. We would be blind if we ignored the horrors of this world: like the wasteful death on a college campus or the ashes of an Indian hospital. Yet our blindness would remain if we only saw the silver lining in every event. The Baptist desires us to see with eyes clear sighted. His message is about seeing truthfully. And we cannot do this, John states, without the proper light. The thrust of his message is that the One to come is light and through God’s chosen the world is illumined. Standing in the wilderness before the religious experts, the Baptizer testifies to the awesome gift of the Father, who is revealed in the Son through the illumination of the Holy Spirit. This One is worthy of our praise.

As the church, we confess that Jesus is the light through whom we learn to see and understand ourselves, our world, and God. We may want to use inflatable reindeers or 20,000 watts of outside Christmas lights to prepare to greet Jesus in the darkness of Christmas morn, but it will be in how we see and who we see on that day that will finally decide what season we are celebrating. Will our eyes strain to see God in the flesh? Will our eyes adjust to the light that dawns among us? In these waning days of Advent, let us speak and act with eyes awakened by the quickening light of God’s salvation; for to do otherwise will be to miss Christmas entirely.

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