The figure of John the Baptist is unmissable – wild, eccentric to say the least, and certainly not welcome at the average family tea table. If he was a toddler someone might suggest his emotions were dis-regulated by his diet and he needed to calm down and get a good night’s sleep. Yet his prophetic voice is one we cannot ignore. He reminds us that there is always a place for righteous anger and that sometimes the new and better requires actions of clearing and letting go that can be painful and disturbing to some. His voice acts as corrective to tendencies in some Christian circles to associate the gospel with niceness or respectability. John was not respectable. But his message was essential. To whose voices of anger and hope do we then perhaps need to open our eyes and hearts today? Felling and responding to discomfort, if not dis-regulation, is a key part of our Advent journeys.
‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?’. Somehow it is consoling to realise that even John, whom we acknowledge as the one who points to Jesus as the Messiah, had doubts. For even when we are sure about something as we possibly can be – we’ve done our research, we spent time with someone, we’ve weighed up all the evidence – we can tend to be risk averse. Maybe we should wait. Maybe the jury is still out. Maybe there is some vital piece of information we are missing. Sometimes indeed it is important to wait. But sometimes we can wait too long, and we miss the transformative opportunity being presented to us. ‘Look’ Jesus says – take in the evidence of your own eyes and have the courage to act.
At the beginning and heart of Christian marriage and family life is this extraordinary story of the creation of a very atypical family unit. Here indeed is the supreme example of a ‘family of choice’ – the family God apparently chooses, with much heralding by angels, for their child. This is not a ‘natural’ family, or a family formed according to traditional ‘religious values. It is an extraordinary family, and as such should give courage to all other families that do not fit neatly into customary categories. For those who live within typical expectations it may also give strength to acknowledge hidden differences and to support those who face other hurts and condemnations. Without the courage of both Joseph and Mary in choosing to step outside conventional boundaries, exercising compassion and common sense, the Christian story could not have begun.
The infant Jesus was ‘wrapped in bands of cloth’ or swaddled. This is such a familiar idea that it is easy to miss its significance. People have swaddled babies for generations. Such swaddling provides protection and helps the child to feel safe and secure. So why does Luke mention it? Firstly, perhaps as a reference back to King Solomon, ‘in swaddling clothes and with constant care I was nurtured’ (Wisdom7:4). But more importantly as a reference forward to the grave clothes, the linen wrappings that the risen Christ breaks and leaves behind at the resurrection. At his birth Jesus becomes bound to the human condition to transform it from within. At his death he breaks those bonds for all of us. We too can therefore take comfort and inspiration in the bands put upon us or in those we take upon ourselves to help free the burdens of others.
These reflections were prepared by Rev. Dr Jo Inkpin of Pitt Street Uniting Church