Summary: John the Baptist, and why repentence comes before cheer in Christmas.

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The season of Christmas is upon us! At what point did this realisation hit you?

When you saw decorations going up in shopping centres - something which

always seems to happen way to early (ie. October)?

When your family first rang you to organise a Christmas luncheon or dinner,

which never seems to happen early enough?

When you received your first card. I got mine a week ago!

For me, it’s always the arrival of John the Baptist - that distinctive Christmas figure, whom the church, in its wisdom, seems determined to confront us with every year at about this time. That aggressive desert man with his animal-hair clothing and his bush-tucker diet and his own distinctive brand of Christmas cheer:

Bear fruits that befit repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.? (Luke 3:8-9)

I’ve expanded on the John the Baptist Christmas merchandising range this year. The John the Baptist Christmas cards have proven to be staggeringly popular over the years. Each year people seem to think of new persons to send these to. This year I’ve added a ’John the Baptist Christmas decoration’. It’s a project for the whole family - colour, glue, cut-out, stick-up, enjoy.

He sticks out like a sore thumb. John’s gaunt, haggard figure collides head on with the more familiar Yuletide figures - Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and the little drummer boy, let alone the fat, jolly elf in the red plush suit with a bag full of gifts for those who have too much already.

John’s appearance is distinctive. John was a man who had never cut his hair. At thirty-something years old, his hair would have been a tangled birds nest of knots and grease, falling down in tangled locks over the camel skins that he wore to keep him warm in the desert.

John’s smell would have been distinctive. This can’t be communicated very clearly through either the card or the decoration of course, but anyone who has a solid diet of locusts and wild honey could be expected to have a very distinctive odor about him.

Most significantly, John’s message was distinctive - blunt, aggressive, straightforward and honest. ’Repent’ he says. ’Come and take a cold dip in the Jordan and ask God to forgive your sins and prepare for the coming of the messiah.’

It’s hard to know where to put him on the Christmas tree, isn’t it? John has so little in common with the other figures that adorn our trees. Of course, John was distinctive in his own day too.

There weren’t many who looked or smelt or spoke like John did then - any more then than now. There were plenty of priests and clergy, but they all lived in the city, not out in the desert. They all dressed properly like priests. They weren’t dressed in camel’s hair and leather. These priests all ate decent meals, looked like decent people, and probably gave nice sermons.

Why then did so many people in Jerusalem travel into the desert (the hot, insecure, dangerous desert) to hear from a man whom most of us would normally go out of our way to avoid? There must have been a serious ’ring of truth’ about his words.

It’s hard to be honest, particularly at this time of year.

This is the time of peace on earth and goodwill amongst all men isn’t it? Forget those wars that have been raging in Kosovo or Dilli or Belfast or wherever else this year. Let’s gloss it all over with some hearty words of good cheer.

I must admit that I find it sort of heartening when, about this time of year, those familiar TV faces - news-readers and TV show hosts - start appearing during the add breaks with images of tinsel and Christmas trees behind them, wishing each of us all the best etc. I’m not sure I want to face the truth here - that probably most of them don’t give a damn about any of us!

And if facing the truth about others is hard, then facing the truth about ourselves is harder. We want to believe the best about ourselves, and Charles Dickens is a tremendous help to us in this regard come Christmas time. We all remember the story of old Ebenezer Scrooge. He seemed like a callous, nasty old man, but deep down he was a good man, and it only took a bit of prompting from the old ’Christmas Spirits’ to bring the best out of him.

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