St. John the Baptist shows the way.
Who doesn’t like Christmas: the parties, the songs, the decorations, the Christmas trees, the gifts, and the good cheer? It’s even an antidote to the darkness and the cold! Never mind that Christmas has come to mean the whole month of December before December 25th! Of course, as it turns out, many people don’t like Christmas – or better, perhaps, feel disappointed – because all the merriment fails to deliver the lasting happiness after which they long. In the rush to gobble down Christmas right after Thanksgiving many find themselves hung-over, emotionally, when Christmas finally arrives. On December 26th, dilapidated Christmas trees are flung out on the curb, gifts, which nobody ever wanted in the first place, force us to wait on long lines in stores we would never otherwise visit to return, resolutions to go on diets start to take form in guilty consciences because of too much food, too much drink, just much, too much, indulging, and finally, no relief has arrived for many whose families are broken, distant and a mockery to the word. The real meaning of Christmas – gentle, still, silent, powerful – is for many overwhelmed by the sound and fury of a misspent Advent.
Christmas, of course, is not really the problem: it’s the misusing of Advent as a season of anticipation (bringing the future partially into the present) instead of observing it as a season of expectation (longing in the present for the future). If we anticipate Christmas by bringing its festivities into Advent, than we will easily arrive at this great feast sated and bored because those (peripheral) festivities – the parties, songs, food and drink, decorations and gifts – are merely ornamentation. Food and drink disappear into the digestive tract, songs fade, parties cease, gifts may, for a while, please, and cheer tires.
Expectation, not anticipation, sums up, in one word, the antidote to this cycle of disappointment.
St. John the Baptist, whose lifestyle could not be more different from the greedy and gluttonous misuse of Advent (“anticipation”), dedicated his life – body and soul – to God; he held nothing back. Everything else was secondary. He lived in the wilderness to get away from the din and distractions of society and its pretentions. He found God in the raw power of the wilderness, where human pride and personal illusions are stripped away as the Israelites learned during the Exodus and the Exile, and in prophesies of the Old Testament, where his vocation to be “a voice crying out in the wilderness” was indeed foretold.
He freed himself from the burdens of fashion and food, so that this self-renunciation could gain his proclamation of repentance for the forgiveness of sins a hearing. It may surprise us, but his radical and simple lifestyle made his a compelling and attractive figure that drew many people from countryside and city to listen to him and accept his demanding and unapologetic message of judgment. The voice crying out in the wilderness did not tell people that they were all right or that everything was fine. It shook them up and shocked them: doom was unavoidable unless they should change their ways. His baptism could serve as an expression of one’s desire to lead a new life; it was no Sacrament, but it was indeed a sign of repentance, of preparation for judgment.
“The Day of the Lord,” the Second Letter of Peter prophecies, will come, and all will be consumed or dissolved by fire (which the Rite of Absolution in the responsory, Libera me, Domine, at the end of Requiem Mass in the Extraordinary Form twice quotes, “dum veneris judicare sæclum per ignem