II ADVENT A
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Good morning. It’s good to be back here with you all at St Andrew’s today. It’s been several years since Susan and I were last here. Since then, I have retired as Dean of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Lima, Peru, and am now back living in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where I came from. And I want to thank Bruce for inviting me to preach to you today.
Today is the Sunday that the Baptists cry. Well, the Recessional Hymn that we will sing at the end of the service starts out, “On Jordan’s banks the Baptists cry…” Of course, when we continue with the second line of the hymn, we realize that it is not that the Baptists are crying, but that John the Baptists is announcing (or crying out) the coming of the Messiah.
You see, today is the Sunday that we hear about St John the Baptist, and especially his preaching to the “brood of vipers.” And I have a sneaking suspicion that the real reason that Bruce invited me for today was so that he would not have to preach on that text, which is every preacher’s favourite text. NOT!
St Luke tells us in his version of the Gospel that John was Jesus’ cousin. John was the last of the prophets of Israel. He was Jesus’ immediate forerunner. Throughout the history of Israel, there had been many prophets who had prophesied the coming of the Messiah, but John was the last, because Jesus the Messiah came in his day. John himself was the subject of prophecy because, as St Matthew tells us in today’s Gospel, “[T]his is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” John was that voice who preached to the people to get ready for the Messiah. He said to them, “[D]o not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”
You see, the Jews, to whom John was preaching, were a chosen race. They thought that just because they were Jews, that is descendants of Abraham, that they would be saved. But that’s not the way it is. Time and again the prophets told them the same thing that John the Baptist was saying, that it wasn’t enough just to be a descendent of Abraham, they also had to obey the law, and not just a formal obedience of the law, just with their actions, but from the heart as well. The Law was not just a system of rules, but an attitude of the heart.
John the Baptist prophesied the same thing, and he added that God had the ability to change even the stones into descendants of Abraham to take the place of those who were Jews by birth. And this prophecy was fulfilled after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when St Paul and others took the Gospel message to the Gentiles, to those who were not Jews. I daresay most of us are not Jews by birth. But when we believe in Jesus and are baptized, we become Abraham’s heirs, and thus we are Jews by naturalization or adoption.
But John the Baptist’s message to the Jews of his day applies to us as well. They thought that they were saved simply because they were Jews. Many times we think that we are saved simply because we are baptized. But that’s not how it works. Yes, we received salvation when we were baptized, but if it was nothing more than pouring water on our heads, if there was no change of heart, it does us no good. Yes, we are saved in baptism, but in order for that salvation to be of any use for us, we have to accept it. It’s like something that happened in Utah quite a few years ago. A murderer, by the name of Gary Collins, was convicted and given the death penalty, but the Governor of the state pardoned him. Thus Gary Collins was saved. But what happened? Gary Collins refused to accept the pardon. The judges of the appellate court said that if he did not accept it, he would have to die, and so he was killed by a firing squad.
It’s the same with baptism. I don’t mean to say that if we don’t accept our baptism that we will be sent before a firing squad, no. But there will be consequences. In Baptism we receive the forgiveness of our sins, that is to say we are pardoned. But in order for that to be any good for us, we have to accept it. And if we are going to accept it, that means a change of life, to live as Jesus commanded us to live, to love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength, and our neighbours as ourselves. If we don’t change our lives in this way, we are like Gary Collins and like the Jews to whom John was preaching.
If St John the Baptist were here on the Earth today, preaching to the people, he would say, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We are baptized’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up people who are baptized.”
As I assume you are well aware, this is the season preparation for Christmas. Christmas is celebrated quiet differently in different countries. I well remember our first Christmas in Honduras, 28 years ago. We were in a rural village of just 230 people. I celebrated midnight mass at 11:00 pm. But it was anything but a “Silent Night.” All through the service the children were setting off firecrackers outside. Susan tried to hush them up, but as soon as she went back inside the church, they would start all over again. You see, that is one of the ways that Latins celebrate Christmas: with fireworks. They’ve been outlawed in many places, but that doesn’t stop people from using them. One of the churches I had 10 years later was situated at the top of a hill overlooking the valley where most of them parishioners lived. When I started midnight mass at 11:00, there were sporadic fireworks going off, and the intensity steadily increased until by midnight, when I would be elevating the Host, it was an enormous din. When we would come out of the church after the service, the smoke would be so thick that you couldn’t see anything in the valley.
In Honduras, the traditional Christmas food was tamales, usually made of pork, wrapped in banana leaves. And they have become a part of our own Christmas traditions. As far as most Hondurans are concerned, Christmas is the 24th. That’s when they celebrate. The 25th is nothing to them. I remember an article in the local newspaper one year telling of the birth of a baby just after midnight on the 24th: “at about the same time as Jesus was born,” as the article stated. I kid you not. Christmas trees are beginning to be used in Honduras, especially in the cities, but the major decoration is the Nacimiento, or manger scene. These can be quite elaborate, even representing an entire village. Often a section of it would depict some event of the previous year. In 1998, the year of Hurricane Mitch, a number of them had an area of total destruction to commemorate the hurricane. In the villages, they will include whatever characters or toy figures they may have, including such as Wonder Woman or GI Joe.
Peruvians celebrate differently. They know that Christmas is the 25th, and they celebrate on the 25th, beginning at midnight. At least in the city of Lima, which is where some 10,000,000 people live, a third of the country’s population, the tradition is to open presents and eat a huge turkey dinner in the wee hours of the 25th, right after midnight. They also eat panetones, a fruit bread that originated in Italy, and drink hot chocolate, which is a tradition that must have come from Mexico via Spain, because hot chocolate is not something you normally want to drink in the middle of summer. But celebrating the 25th is a fairly recent innovation. Traditionally in Peru, as it still is in Spain, the big celebration was the 6th of January, Epiphany, which they call the “Bajada de Reyes,” the coming of the kings. The Wise Men would bring presents for the children. The principal decoration in the home was the “Nacimiento,” the manger scene. Now, especially in the cities, Christmas trees have taken over, and the 25th has become the only celebration. And it has become quite commercialized, just as it has become here. Santa Claus is called Papa Noel, and he brings the presents to the children. And just as in the culture here, they do not know the difference between Advent and Christmas.
In Lima, more and more people are decorating the outside of their houses with Christmas lights, just as is the custom here. There is one area of the city that has become quite famous for all the lighted displays on the homes. And they also celebrate Christmas (and New Years as well) with fireworks. Once our boys moved to the States, we would call them at midnight to which them a Merry Christmas and then hold the phone out so that they could at least hear the fireworks, which they missed very much, and which Susan and I are going to miss this year. It’s got to the point where it’s just not the same without them. We’ve already located a place in the Strip District where we can get our tamales to eat, so we can maintain that tradition.
At our Cathedral, we were very careful about emphasizing Advent as a time of preparation and not of celebration. We would put up the greenery and even the tree, but without decorations or lights on the tree until Christmas Eve. But this is very definitely an extremely busy season around the Cathedral. The annual Advent/Christmas Bazaar was held last Saturday. The women of the Cathedral had spent time making mince meat and Christmas puddings, and these were sold along with homemade jams, chutneys, cookies, and cakes: English foods that are hard to come by elsewhere in Lima. There were also a number of outside vendors selling items that could be used as Christmas decorations or presents. A tent was set up in the garden, where there were tables, and food and refreshments were sold. It was a time of great conviviality.
This weekend was the pantomime, put on in the Cathedral Hall by the Good Companions, an English-language amateur theatre troupe. Now, be aware that this is English pantomime. It is not Marcel Marceau. It is not silent, not by any means. It is a theatre genre that is traditional for December in England, where almost every village has its own panto performance. It is typical very broad English humour with a great deal of audience participation. It is usually very loosely based on a nursery rhyme or a fairy tale with music and dancing. There is always a very good character (who always enters and leaves stage right), a very bad character (who always enters and leaves stage left), the hero, called the principal boy, who is always portrayed by a young woman, at least one dame, who is always portrayed by a man in drag, at least one fool. It’s designed for children, but there are enough double entendres to keep the parents happy as well.
This Tuesday evening is the Advent Carol Service, which is attended by many in the English-speaking community who are not members of the Cathedral. We have a pick-up choir for that service (which sings also for Easter), but it is very good, even remaining on key while singing a cappella! The service is followed by a mulled wine and mince pie reception in the Deanery garden. Now remember that Lima is in the southern hemisphere, so it is now late spring going into summer, and it is quite possible to have an outdoor evening reception in December.
On Christmas Eve there is a service in Spanish at 7:00 pm. The English service is on Christmas Day at 10:00. There is no Midnight Mass for a number of reasons. 1) It is not nearly as common in England as it is here in the States, so the Brit members of the community are not used to it. 2) The vast majority of the members do not live within walking distance, and many of them do not have cars, and there is no late night transportation on Christmas Eve. And 3) it can be quite dangerous to be on the streets on Christmas Eve because for the vast majority of Peruvians who are not particularly religious, Christmas is not a time to celebrate our Lord’s birth, rather it’s just an excuse to get drunk, which makes driving very dangerous.
The Christmas season ends at the Cathedral with a Christmas Carol Service on Twelfth Night, January 5th. This time it is just Christmas carols that are sung, not Advent music, and without a choir, so it is all congregational singing. And it is followed by a reception with hot chocolate and rosca de reyes, a fruit bread ring that is traditional for Epiphany.
So those are some of the customs that we have observed in Honduras and Peru, some of which we have adopted ourselves. We don’t set off fireworks or have a big turkey dinner right after midnight on the 25th, but we do celebrate our Lord’s birth with tamales, panetones, and hot chocolate. And we put up a nacimiento. Actually we have manger scenes all over the house, but one of them is set up Honduran style.
And now we are in the process of using Advent to get ready for Christmas. St John the Baptist tells us in today’s Gospel that we need to make ourselves ready for our Lord’s coming by changing our lives also. Let us use this season of Advent to make ourselves ready for our Lord’s coming. Let us make ourselves ready by changing our life, if it is not already changed. And if we have had a change of life, let us prepare ourselves through loving God and our neighbour even more that we have in the past. Amen.