Listen To Article
The first Advent calendar appeared in 1851, and featured a biblical-character-a-day to count Christian worshippers down to Christmas. It featured, among others, John the baptizer, since John features in the stories of Jesus’ birth and ministry beginnings.
Indeed, John is one of the most prominent biblical figures in the Advent season. If the Church published a monthly annual calendar, you could make the case for John as “Mr. December”: the middle two weeks of the four Sundays of Advent, in all three years of the lectionary cycle, feature Scripture readings devoted to John.
He’d have a hard time fitting in now, however, with many of the luxury Advent calendars hawked at shopping destinations in my neighborhood and online. There’s a Merry Fitmas daily protein supplement Advent calendar, for example (“Have a Merry Fitness and a Happy New Rear!”), or a daily-shot-of-tequila calendar. A British boutique is offering an artisan gin & cheese daily calendar to count down to Christmas; there are makeup Advent calendars and couples’ sex toy calendars and wine and scotch calendars. One boutique near me is selling an Advent calendar from a Parisian candle- maker for the low, low price of $425. It’s hard to imagine John amongst the tequila, makeup, and cheese, gaunt and scowling: “Repent, ye brood of vipers!”
John the baptizer doesn’t come off as lovable or domesticated in the Gospels; he lives in the boonies, his social skills are questionable, and he doesn’t play well with others. Chances are good that John never took a class in non-violent communication.
Yet, John the baptizer is indispensable to the Christmas story–and, to the Christian story. Only two of the four Gospels even contain a narrative of Jesus’ birth, but none of the Gospels tell us the Jesus-story without telling us about Jesus’ cantankerous cousin John. The Eastern churches nickname John the “Forerunner” of Jesus. Cyril of Alexandria called him “a lamp preceding Christ.” John Calvin liked to say that John the baptizer was “a lantern which shone in front of the Son of God.” John gets us ready for Jesus, introduces us to Jesus.
And John does this by urging us, “repent!” For most people where I live, that word conjures images of oily, big-haired televangelists, staring into the screen and snarling: “Repent, and ye shall be saved!” We hear the word “repent” as, “feel really, really bad.”
I’d like to campaign to scrape the cultural rust from that old word and hear John’s message afresh. Not originally a “church” word, in the ancient world, to “repent” meant to turn, change course, rethink, reconsider. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, for example, when cajoling a Galilean revolutionary away from the violent course of action he’d planned, asked him to “repent and believe in me.” Yale professor Lamin Sanneh, in his provocative book Whose Religion is Christianity? gets Gospel repentance just right: “(conversion or repentance) is the turning of all of ourselves, without leaving anything behind or outside, toward God; a refocusing of the mental life, and its cultural and social underpinnings and of our feelings, affections, and instincts, in light of what God has done in Jesus Christ.”
Christian repentance isn’t about guilt-tripping, but grace, transformation, flourishing. It’s about rethinking and rearranging everything- everything- in light of the cosmic victory accomplished at a Bethlehem feed trough and a Roman cross. In the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth, almighty God has heard us, visited us, healed us, lifted us up, emancipated us from our ancient enemies of sin and death.
So, listen to Mr. December: repent, and ye shall be saved.