Third Sunday of Advent, Year C
12 December 2021
A few years ago, our child Elias told us that we needed to get a copy of the movie “Die Hard,” because, they said, it is a Christmas movie. Never having seen the movie I was puzzled. I objected, it’s an action movie, for in it terrorists take over an office Christmas party, take hostages, and Bruce Willis as a New York police officer saves the day, plenty of explosions included.
But our conversation did make me think about what makes a movie a Christmas movie.
Google tells us that a Christmas movie is a movie that makes us feel the holiday spirit. This is a good definition because it keeps it sentimental, perhaps with a tiny bit of morality thrown in. The Hollywood Reporter writes about “Die Hard” that Christmas strongly enhances our reaction to the protagonists’ marital problems because family dysfunction during the season is so relatable.1
Of course, Elias was right. We now own the movie.
And yet I am not a fan of what our culture calls the Christmas Spirit, even if it originates with Charles Dickens, which, if it does, means to remember that we are most human when we are mindful of others. That we are most human when we care about others is certainly true, but the Christmas or holiday Spirit emerges when the Holy Spirit has been sanitized and stripped of anything that may be perceived as religious, and when that happens, sentimentality is what’s left. And sentimentality does not make us do a whole lot, because mostly it’s a feeling.
One of our family’s favourite Christmas songs is Jackson Browne’s Rebel Jesus, part of the Chieftain’s Christmas Album. Browne takes issue with Christmas sentimentality. Verse three goes like this:
Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus2
Perhaps it is John the Baptist’s utter lack of sentimentality that makes his appearance during Advent so jarring. He addresses those who come to him as brood of vipers who act morally only when they are scared, Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come, and who still manage somehow to see themselves as protected by their pedigree, Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’.
John speaks with great urgency. Judgment is coming, get your act together, he says. John aims not at seasonal charity but at change, lives lived for others, lives lived for God.
John comes along as a strange fellow. And yet his message, while jarring is not so strange, it is much more than Christmas spirit, it’s God’s Spirit active in the lives of God’s people.
It is not so strange because we too live in a time of great urgency. Our world faces serious challenges, a primary one to limit global warming for our children and children’s children, but even for the global poor today, already experiencing the loss of arable land, and even for our own Province.
If we have been keeping Advent, we will be among the people who ask John, “What then shall we do?”
What then shall we do is a question about action. If only I knew what to do, I would do it, please, John, tell us.It is also a question for meaning, for we want our lives to matter. We don’t want to be remembered for the many coats or shoes we had, the wealth we accumulated, or for the power and status we possessed. Or maybe we do, at least the last one. Yet what makes our lives meaningful is our love for others, perhaps even those considered unlovable, perhaps even enemies. We can start small because we have to begin somewhere.
I am not sure John would have phrased it the way we just did. After all, he also speaks of judgment, of winnowing forks and of unquenchable fire. So John may not have spoken of love of enemies and he did not know that Jesus would.
But John speaks of the One who is coming, whose sandals he is unworthy to untie, the One more powerful who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire.
As much as Advent is a season of waiting for the One who is coming, Jesus, God in the flesh, we also know that Jesus has come and has breathed the Holy Spirit onto his disciples, poured the Holy Spirit onto the church, the Holy Spirit of which John speaks in the wilderness.
There is a difference between John and Jesus that even John becomes aware of. As John is imprisoned by King Herod he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask, Are you the One who is to come or shall we wait for another? (Luke 7:18) John wonders because he sees no winnowing fork and no unquenchable fire.
Jesus does not answer directly, but he tells the things he is doing, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. (7:22) Jesus’ reply echoes today’s reading from Zephaniah.
In the Gospel of John Jesus says to his disciples, Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)
Jesus does not say, Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also be very sentimental. Jesus says, the one who believes in me will be changed, a new person, will not live for themselves and will have the ability to know what it is not to live for themselves because of the example I have set.
So, let us indulge in the sentimentality of Christmas movies, if we must, but let us not confuse it for the gift that it is to be a disciple in the Kingdom of God, a people who share in one meal, and a people who in this meal become people who give themselves away as bread for the hungry, a people freed to no longer live for themselves.
1 The Hollywood Reporter, 23 December 2018, What Defines a Christmas Movie? Discuss: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/die-hard-debate-what-defines-a-christmas-movie-1171474/
2 See David Lose’s blog entry with the complete Lyrics: https://www.davidlose.net/2012/12/the-rebel-jesus/