An ancient gold-hued icon depicting John the Baptist

JOHN THE BAPTIST is a central figure during Advent, and, in this 17th century Russian Orthodox icon, he has wings. He’s angelic. He is a messenger.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2, NRSV)

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:7b-8a, NRSV)

It might come as no surprise to you that John’s Advent message isn’t sung much. There is no “Brood of Vipers” Christmas carol. There’s quite a distance from, “Repent! Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” to “All I Want for Christmas … ” I love Christmas songs. All of them. And yet, ironically, they tend to obscure the truth of Christmas. They are overindulgent and mushy. Consequently, our energetic commitment to Christmas sentimentality makes listening to John strange.

“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:6-9, NRSV)

John the Baptist is embarrassingly strange to Christians, yet he is one of the central figures of Advent sent to prepare us for Christmas.

No matter how many Christmas songs we sing or Christmas lights we put up, the world we live in is dark. This year’s litany of darkness is exhausting: war in Ukraine; mass shootings across the nation; the continuation of COVID-19; fractured political discourse; racial unrest; growing homelessness; deep anxiousness; and countless failing relationships.

It is no surprise that we desperately grasp on to that familiar sentimentality to dull the pain. We might truly need cute Nativity plays and silly Santa songs.

Or might we need more than that?

John knows we need something more. He doesn’t mince words. He turns us to the light. He testifies to Jesus, who has and is coming into the darkness that engulfs us. John’s message ensures us that the darkness will not engulf us because we are not alone in the dark. Rejoice!

If you are exhausted this year by the amount of effort put into fabricating some form of innocent joy to dull the pain: Repent! Let go of that and learn true joy. And rejoice! For the light has come into the world and shines in our darkness. Let the light show you that you are God’s child, “not born of the will of
man, but of the will of God.”

John the Baptist is embarrassingly strange to Christians, yet he is one of the central figures of Advent sent to prepare us for Christmas. Which is why Donald Heinz, a Lutheran minister and author, says, “Getting Christmas right improves the chances of getting ourselves right.”

And I imagine that getting Christmas right, especially for most of us this season, might mean listening to John’s angelic words: Repent! Bear fruit worthy
of repentance! Rejoice! The Light has come and is coming. Rejoice!

The Rev. Dr. Brian Lugioyo is dean of the School of Theology and Seattle Pacific Seminary. He is also a professor of theology and ethics. 

Related articles

Advent 2021: Weekly Advent Meditations

A red advent candle
“Nine Advent Lessons,” with Amanda Heath Stubbert ’95 and Corbett Stubbert ’97

Week Four: Advent as solidarity

My Journey Into the Orthodox Church