John Denver’s Christmas and the Kerygma

Last night my family had a picnic around the Christmas tree and enjoyed our favorite silly Christmas album, by John Denver and the Muppets.  The album runs the gamut, from almost serious to very silly. A Christmas Together - John Denver & The Muppets(I’m partial to Animal’s background singing in the Beachboys song “Little Saint Nick”: if you have Prime, you can listen to it at the link above.)  But when Kermit the Frog sings, “I don’t know if you believe in Christmas . . . but if you believe in love, that will be more than enough,” or John Denver gives the solemn blessing, “Sleep in heavenly peace,” we get to the heart of the issue.

“John Denver and the Muppets: Christmas Together” seems a nice way to get at a more serious issue: the sentimentalization of Christmas, and of Christianity.  John Denver is only a more dramatic instance of what happens with a lot of our Church music and preaching, and a lot of the people in our churches, whether at Christmas and Easter or any other time of the year.  As Kermit says, they don’t seem to believe in Christmas, they just “believe in love.”


To get at the issue, let me approach from another angle.  I’ve been working with St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.  One way to say what I’ve found is this: I think everything I’ve ever heard said about it misses the point.

Now, my point here is not to explain John Paul II, I’m just using him as an example.  (I should write a post about Theology of the Body ­­– or a book – some other time.)  In short, I think Theology of the Body uses a close reading of the Bible’s teaching on marriage to understand the power of grace in regard to our sexuality.  It is, ahem, theology, and he is articulating the Basic Gospel Message as it plays out in the realm of sex.

Instead, people have all sorts of ideas.  A devout young man in our parish has a sweatshirt that summarizes Theology of the Body with some line about the dignity of the individual.  That’s pretty far from any reference to the Bible or the power of grace.  A scholarly work I was reviewing thinks it’s all about personal experience.  My kids went on a retreat where they were told John Paul’s main point was to embrace your sexual identity.  Etc.

What child is this?

Now, my point is this: On the one hand, those are not good summaries of the main point of Theology of the Body.  In fact, they completely miss the point.  They are philosophical points which say nothing about the redemptive power of grace – by themselves, they make the saving grace of Jesus Christ sound unnecessary or even irrelevant.

On the other hand, they are points that John Paul II makes along the way.  In fact, they are good points – not the main point, but good points, and truly parts of what John Paul II is saying.  And it’s not surprising that when a great Christian thinker dives into the heart of the Gospel – Scripture and grace – he also makes some nice philosophical points about other things.  And it’s not surprising that those points, too, are so wonderful that, even when people fail to grasp the Gospel’s teaching about grace, they are still amazed at that Christian thinker’s thinking on other things.  It’s a sign of John Paul’s greatness that people get so excited about his side points.


One of Pope Francis’s most powerful points is that we need to focus on the “kerygma.”  (Kerysso is the Greek verb for proclaiming; –ma is the Greek ending for “the thing done by the verb”; so kerygma means “the thing that we proclaim,” the heart of the Gospel message.)  In fact, if you put the encyclicals of Pope Benedict side by side with those of John Paul II, you see Benedict saying the same thing: JPII talked about a million things, and Pope Benedict said, let’s focus on the love of God.  JPII was wonderful at showing that there are a million wonderful consequences of the kerygma – but Benedict and Francis are right that if we don’t get the kerygma clear, we miss the boat.


Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year for discovering that people have no idea what the kerygma is, no idea what Christmas, and Christianity, is really about.  John Denver and Kermit the Frog – and an awful lot of other people, including too many of our priests – seem to think that Baby Jesus is a sweet little metaphor for everyone getting along and enjoying a peaceful night’s sleep.

And so Christmas is an important time for the rest of us to clarify the kerygma for ourselves, to figure out just what it is All About.  There are lots of ways to put it.  I like Romans 5:5, “The love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us.”  Or Galatians 5:22, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness,” etc.  Or you could say “Christ is the Redeemer,” or “God became man so that men could become God.”  “If Christ is in you, indeed the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10 and many others).  Christ has opened the way to the Father.  There are lot of ways to put it – and Christmas should challenge us to figure out what is the kerygma that the Baby in the Manger helps us appreciate.


On the other hand, just as I can appreciate all the side points people gather from Theology of the Body, so too at Christmas, we needn’t be greedy.  Yes, John Denver, and a lot of the people in our churches, are missing The Main Point about Christmas.  But the side points they grab onto are real.  Jesus does bring peace among men and peace in our hearts, and it’s beautiful that people are attracted to those things – even though they still need us to articulate for them why they need the Gospel of Jesus Christ in order to attain the secondary things they so love.

Even my family gathered around the Christmas tree, as beautiful as that is, isn’t the heart of the matter.  We need the kerygma.  But we can be generous toward those who still see only partially.

Where do you get annoyed about people missing the point at Christmas?  Can you articulate the connection between the goods those people are after and the kerygma, the heart of the Gospel?

Like Children at Christmas, or The Joy of the Prophet

File:But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart Alice Havers.jpg“Unless you become like children.”  I’ve wondered for a long time what it means – feel free to tell me.

The obvious thought recently occurred to me that this might have something to do with the Fatherhood of God.  And as with the fatherhood, I wonder if we over-psychologize childhood.

A long-ago parish priest, for example, used to have a great line about how children immerse themselves in little details.  A beautiful thought – but awfully psychological.  Less beautiful, I heard today a sappy Christmas pop song that invoked Jesus’ line about childhood in the course of saying we should act more like children around the Christmas tree – Christian childhood at Christmas without reference to Christ.

Better, I think, to think metaphysically about childhood.  What is a child?  A child has received his Father’s nature, but is still growing into it.  To become like children means admitting that God isn’t finished with us, we aren’t divine yet.  That is the Christian child’s joy: not about the Christmas tree, but about the Child, who is God entering into our human weakness.


That thought goes well with the readings for this Gaudete Sunday.  The Epistle, from First Thessalonians, sounds the central theme of this Sunday, midway through the Advent night of winter: “Rejoice always.”  The other two readings speak to us of the vocation of a prophet.

The first half of the reading from Isaiah (the first two verses of chapter 61), speak of prophecy: “He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor.”  The second half (the last two verses of the chapter) sounds the theme of joy: “I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul.”  But what is the joy of the prophet?


Our Gospel, from the first chapter of John, brings us back to John the Baptist.  First it gives the key definition of John’s vocation, from the Prologue: “He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.”  The prophet is one who bears testimony to Someone Else.

So then we jump ahead to where John (the Evangelist) tells us about “the testimony of John” (the Baptist).  They asked him, “Who are you?”  And his first answer was, “I am not the Christ.”

There’s a lot of talk these days about our identity, about appreciating how great we are.  There’s something important in all that – but John’s identity, his first answer to “Who are you?” is “I am not the Christ.”  It is good to talk about how much God loves us.  But we don’t know what that means until we also can answer: “I am not God.  I am not the Messiah.”

They ask him other questions.  “Are you Elijah? . . . Are you the Prophet?”  Well, in the other three Gospels, Jesus will say, “For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you will receive it, this is Elijah who is to come” (Mt 11:13-14, cf. Mark 9:12-14 and Luke 1:17).  Yes, John sort of is the ultimate prophet and Jesus even identifies him with Elijah.  But John’s answer is “I am not.”  The words ring more powerful when you know how often John’s Gospel has Jesus say, “I am,” an echo of God’s word to Moses at the burning bush, “I am who am.”  I am not.

They ask why he baptizes – and he doesn’t even answer the question, he only says that the one coming after him is one whose sandal he is not worthy to untie, whose feet he is not worthy to wash, whose baptism will actually be worth something.

John’s main purpose in the Gospel is not to be Jesus.  Jesus is not just a prophet.  Jesus’s baptism is not like John’s.  John is not the Christ.  John is not.

But he does also tell them his vocation, quoting Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’.”  He is not entirely “not.”  Even more powerful than that, he is the one who points to he who is, and who brings life to where life is not.  John’s life is entirely relative to Jesus.


So too when our reading from Isaiah talks about joy it is all about “him”: “He has clothed me, he has wrapped me like a bridegroom and a bride, the Lord GOD will make justice and praise spring up.”  And when he talks about being a prophet too it is all about “him”: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, he has anointed me, he has sent me, to announce a year of favor from the LORD.”

So too when our Epistle says “rejoice,” it then says “Pray without ceasing.  In all circumstances give thanks.” Whatever you have not and whatever you have, point to him.  “Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise prophecy”: believe that God is alive and active in our world.  “May the God of peace” – He! – “make you perfectly holy.”  “He will accomplish it.”


The joy of the prophet is to know that he is not the source of his own joy, but receives everything from one infinitely greater.

Christian childhood is to know that the power at work in us, bringing us to full maturity in Christ, is infinitely greater than we can ask or imagine.  It’s not that we already possess, not that we have arrived – but that he is at work in us.

The joy of Advent is in looking forward to the one who comes, who can do what we cannot.

And the joy of Christmas is knowing that God is with us, and God has entered into our weakness, to give us a strength that does not come from us.

Where do you find yourself focusing too much on your own goodness and strength?

Second Sunday of Advent: A City in the Wilderness

At the center of our readings for the second Sunday of Advent is an image of Jerusalem.  The Entrance Antiphon says, “O people of Sion” (the temple hill at the center of Jerusalem) “behold, the Lord will come to save the nations, and the Lord will make the glory of his voice heard in the joy of your heart.”  The Communion Antiphon again says, “Jerusalem, arise and stand upon the heights, and behold the joy which comes to you from God.”  Jerusalem looks toward the Lord who will come.

The Liturgical renewal of Vatican II is remarkable, sometimes dumbfoundingly rich.  These two antiphons are ancient, and were part of the readings before the Council.  After the Council, the readings themselves changed – though the Gospel continues to bring our attention to John the Baptist – but we enter even more deeply into these antiphons.

The earthly Jerusalem is a strange city. Most cities, like New York, are near the sea and trade routes.  Jerusalem is in the mountains, desert mountains, a fortress set apart.  Jerusalem is a city in the wilderness, a watchtower.


Our Epistle, from Second Peter, keeps us looking forward, to the Second Coming.  We are reminded that on that day, “the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.”  All that will remain is “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”  (In Revelation, that’s the New Jerusalem.)  “Therefore . . . be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him.”  Be cleansed so that you can meet your Lord when he comes.

Our Prophet, Isaiah, is more reassuring: instead of threatening the incineration of heaven and earth, he says, “Comfort”: tell Jerusalem that “her guilt is expiated.”  But still we are preparing “in the desert . . . the way of the Lord,” preparing for when “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” because “Here comes with power the Lord God.”  A watchtower.


The Gospel is John the Baptist, whom Mark calls, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

A central line of the reading points us to the identity of Jerusalem.  I’ll give my own translation, because the point is tricky: “There came out to him the whole Judean territory and all the Jerusalemites.”

Like everything else in this reading, it is a reference to Isaiah and Elijah.  Our reading from Isaiah said, “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news!  Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God!”

Jerusalem, the city on a hill, is a people looking east.  The earthly Jerusalem proclaims salvation to all the nations, beginning with the Judean countryside that surrounds it.  “All of Jerusalem,” Mark says, goes out to John the Baptist.


John himself is an image of the Old Testament people.  The reading begins, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet” – but then it quotes two of the prophets, Malachi, who says, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,” and then our reading from Isaiah, “A voice of one crying out in the desert.”

Both passages have prophets telling of a prophet telling of the Lord who comes.  Jerusalem is a people looking East, a people of prophecy, a watchtower.

John the Baptist himself proclaims a baptism.  In the Greek version of the Old Testament that Mark is quoting, “baptism” is a word derived from the word for the ablutions that are center to Jerusalem’s identity.  In the Passover rite in Exodus, for example, “You shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip [bapto] in the blood in the bowl, and strike the lintel and the doorposts with the blood in the bowl.”  And on Yom Kippur, “the priest shall dip [bapto] his finger in the blood and sprinkle of the blood seven times before Jehovah, at the front of the veil of the holy place.”

But the exact word appears only, of course, in Isaiah, where baptizo is being “overwhelmed” (even in English, “whelm” literally means “submerge”) by the awesomeness of the Lord, and what Elijah’s successor Elisha tells Naaman the Syrian to do in the Jordan.

John leads the people of Jerusalem back to their roots, in the Jordan.  He wears the camel hair and belt that were the marks of Elijah and all the prophets.  He eats wild honey, recalling the promised land of milk and honey, and locusts, a food of the poor in the desert and the animal food allowed by the charter of the people in Leviticus.

John reminds the people of Jerusalem who they are: a prophetic people, a people looking east, awaiting their Lord – a people of the desert, a city in the wilderness, gathered not by trade but by the Lord who comes.

To be Jerusalem and Israel is to say, “One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals” – to wash his feet, though he submerges mine.

We too are called to be that prophetic people, a people gathered together in prophecy of the day of the Lord.

How would your parish be different if it lived as a prophetic people, a city in the wilderness?


First Sunday in Advent: Christ’s Work in Us

“Let us see your face, and we shall be saved,” was our Psalm response this week. “Come, Lord Jesus!” is our prayer for Advent, as we prepare to celebrate for his first coming and look forward to his coming again.

Searching the Scriptures

Our Gospel sets our face toward that second coming when it says, “You do not know when the lord of the house is coming . . . .  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”  Those are the words of Jesus, who has already come, and tells us to look forward to his coming again.

So too in our first reading, from the beginning of First Corinthians: “as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  First Corinthians was written to a community already established by the revelation of Jesus Christ, else they couldn’t even use his name. But they look forward.  In fact, “He” – that is, Jesus Christ himself, who already came, and already is at work in us; “he” of whom Paul has just said, “the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus” – “He will  keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Christ who has come prepares us for Christ who will come again.


We enter into this mystery through the first reading – of course, as every Sunday in Advent, from the prophet Isaiah.  The reading begins and ends, “You, LORD, are our father.”  At the end it explains: “We are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.”  We are what we are because God makes us.  That’s why in the reading from Corinthians Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always on your account” – because of “the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus.”  He makes us.

This appreciation of grace takes a startling turn when Isaiah says, “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways.”  He believes so firmly that God alone makes us righteous that he can even blame God for not making us righteous.  And so he begs, “Return.”  And so we beg, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “let us see your face and we shall be saved,” “Lord, make us turn to you.”

Isaiah begs, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” – and we beg, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “I believe that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”  Be our king!  Reign!  Make the world righteous at last!

Isaiah would like to say that we are righteously awaiting, but he cannot: “all of us have become like unclean people,” even “all our good deeds are like polluted rags. . . .  There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you,” says the Prophet who is calling on the name of the LORD, but knows he does it so poorly.


Mary sees

Things are the same and different for St. Paul.  “In Christ Jesus,” he says, “. . . you were enriched in every way, with all logos and gnosis . . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”  Because we know him, we are enriched by him.

And so now, too, after Christ has come, we long for his coming.  And now too we know that we cannot make ourselves ready for that coming, for that reign of true righteousness.  But “God is faithful,” and so “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Before Christ, Isaiah sees nothing but polluted rags.  After Christ, Paul knows that the power already at work in us through faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ can make us holy, irreproachable as we await the perfect reign of Christ.


In our reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Be watchful!  Be alert!”  Or “Look, and stay awake!”  Keep your eye on him, on the revelation of Christ who has come and will come again.

“It is like a man traveling abroad,” he says.  “He places his servants in charge, each with his own work.”  We each have a work to do, a way to prepare, a way that he wants to work in us as we await the revelation of his perfect kingdom.

“He orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.”  The gatekeeper is a specific work, not the work of all the servants.  And yet his work gives the ultimate meaning to all our other works.  “Watch, therefore.”  Be prepared at every moment, by living the vocation, the work that he has given you, and that he works in you.

To prepare for Christ is not to sleep, but to let him who has already come work in us.  If we are to be ready for his perfect reign, we must make sure we are not like the people in Isaiah’s time, when Christ had never come, and they were unclean and no one called on his name.  Rather we must be like St. Paul, enriched with every good gift for every good work, by our knowledge of him who has already come to begin his work in us

How is Christ trying to make you turn to him, to prepare your place in his kingdom?