Showing in theaters worldwide since last week is The Grinch. The Grinch, based on Dr. Seuss’ holiday classic tells the story of a cynical grump who goes on a mission to steal Christmas. He especially hates the Christmas season, making particular note of how disturbing the various noises of Christmastime are to him, including the singing of Christmas carols.
Similar to the Grinch is another popular anti-Christmas figure named Scrooge from Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol. Scrooge is a cold-hearted miser who despises Christmas. Scrooge was also turned into a popular movie shown on Christmas several years ago.
Ironically, despite their hatred of the season, Grinch and Scrooge give an important lesson for Christmas. The story of Grinch and Scrooge is about transformation. We love to see the spirit of Christmas bring out the best in people. One of the essential lessons of Christmas, indeed, is personal transformation.
The story of Grinch and Scrooge also try to show us a different side of Christmas beyond the predominantly commercial and materialistic celebration of the season. There is more to Christmas than all the gifts, material things, merry-making and shopping. Unfortunately, commercial and business establishment, have used these two characters by highlighting their grumpiness and greediness as the opposite of the spirit of the season which is supposedly generosity and gift-giving. Deriding the character of the Grinch and Scrooge, is indeed good for business, as it justifies the mad frenzy of shopping and accumulating material things in the guise of generosity and gift giving.
Interestingly, the Grinch and Scrooge, resemble some similarities to John the Baptist, the main character of the gospel in today’s second Sunday of Advent. Luke in the gospel today, presents John the Baptist as a kind of anti-establishment figure but showed the people the true way of preparing for the coming of the messiah.
First, Luke, at the beginning of the gospel, gives a list of the powerful people in the world at that time:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar,
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,
and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee,
and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region
of Ituraea and Trachonitis,
and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene,
during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas,
the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
Luke’s enumeration of the famous figures during the time near the birth of Jesus was not just to serve a historical function but to employ sarcasm against these political figures. With so many powerful people around, we wonder why God chose John the Baptist, an eccentric and lowly person, to proclaim the coming of the Messiah. Indeed, God, as Mary proclaimed in the Magnificat, “has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble.”
Secondly, Luke locates John’s preaching to the people, not in the center, that is, the temple in Jerusalem, but in the wilderness or the desert. Despite John proclaiming in the desert, which is an inconvenience to many people especially the rich and powerful, the people went into the desert. It was not John who went to Jerusalem, but it was the people who went to the desert to hear John. In the Bible, God leads people into the isolation and barrenness of the wilderness or desert in order to effect transformation.
Thirdly, John’s lifestyle represents a counter-symbol to his contemporaries. Jesus once said: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He has a demon” (Mt. 11:18). He was arrayed in a “camel’s hair” garment, secured by a leather belt, and his diet was locusts and wild honey (Mt. 3:4). His dietary fare was that generally consumed by the poorer elements of society. He stood in bold relief to the wealthy, indulgent Jews of his day.
Finally, John the Baptist way in preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah is not through external force but internal transformation:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
He preached a “baptism of repentance,” a cleansing from the old ways of “greed and darkness” and a commitment to a new way of living.
Following the cue of John the Baptist, the church has set aside Advent as a privileged moment of retreat, a kind of going into the desert, in preparation for Jesus birth. Advent is a quiet time of joyful anticipation which stands in great contrast with our culture’s turbulent consumer-bonanza during Christmas season.
Advent as a time of joyful anticipation is reflected in the other readings today. The prophet Baruch, in the first reading, says, “take off your robe of mourning and misery,” for God is leading his people “with his mercy and justice for company.” God’s people “are wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,” and they “will be named by God forever the peace of justice.”
St. Paul, too, in the second reading, speaks of joyful anticipation, of waiting for “the day of Christ Jesus.” He encourages the Philippians to grow in “love, understanding, wealth of experience, clear conscience, and blameless conduct,” and he concludes with a wish: “that you may be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in you.”
Grinch and Scrooge like John the Baptist point to personal transformation as one of the essential challenges of the Christmas story. But Grinch and Scrooge missed out the elephant in the room while John the Baptist did not. Christmas is more than just sharing and giving of gifts to each other. Christmas is celebrating and receiving the greatest gift of all. John the Baptist showed us that Christmas, most important of all, is the joyful preparation and anticipation of the coming of Jesus in our lives which calls for all of us a baptism of repentance.