I was talking recently with a friend of mine who is a doctor. He was exasperated with some of his patients who became worried when he announced that he was taking a few days of vacation at the holidays. Those few patients, some of whom hadn’t needed to see him for more than a year, acted as if he was leaving town permanently. My friend and I laughed about the stress that people create for themselves around the holidays.
My personal opinion about the Christmas holidays is that most of the population of this country should be sedated and left in a quiet room until after the new year. I don’t know why people get themselves so wound up about Christmas, but I have a theory. I wonder if much of the holiday stress and confusion results from the changes to people’s daily routines.
The holidays bring with them a wide array of expectations and activities, all of which vie for attention. Those added activities necessarily interfere with one’s routine behaviors. This, I think, is probably the cause of much of the holiday stress. We love our routines. We depend on them. We are creatures of habit. Habits provide a sense of competency and security. When daily routines are disrupted, it’s stressful. This can be very bad news with regard to our religious practices and our faith.
In today’s Gospel reading John the Baptist is quoted as having said, “I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit’.” (John 1:33) John was renowned during his lifetime, and after, as a great prophet. (Matthew 11:9) Even those who disapproved of his preaching recognized him as a holy man. (Matthew 14:3-5) His admission that he “did not know” Jesus’ identity points to the nature of Divine power.
God exercises Divine power on behalf of believers, but rarely in the ways we expect. You will recall from last Sunday’s Gospel reading that both King Herod and the magi were surprised to learn that the messiah was born in Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:4) A couple of weeks before that we heard about Joseph’s surprise over Mary’s pregnancy. (Matthew 1:18-19) More often than not, God seems to work in ways that are surprising and mysterious.
Those of us who are very attached to our habits, routines and expectations might find ourselves at a great disadvantage when trying to be faithful to God because we must attend to the unexpected and mysterious ways in which God works. Having faith sometimes requires that we abandon our routines and habits, and often our expectations, in order to experience God’s saving power.
There is, of course, a simple way to avoid letting our habits and expectations become obstacles to faith: it is to take to heart the preaching of John the Baptist. John preached repentance as the necessary preparation for receiving God’s salvation. (Matthew 3:2) Repentance, as preparation for the coming of God’s Reign, requires that it be practiced as a habit. Only repentance as an on-going discipline will last long enough to get us all the way to the gates of the Kingdom. Repentance as a single, one-time act goes no farther than the one act.
Mary and Joseph had their routines disrupted completely by the Incarnation. (Matthew 2:13-15) Their response was to listen carefully to God’s guidance; this required repenting of their own plans for their lives. John the Baptist had his routine expectations upended entirely. He expected a firebrand messiah rather than a humble reconciler. (Matthew 3:11-12) His response was to humble himself, and point to the lamb of God. (John 1:29-31)) By comparison, the religious leaders in Jerusalem were so upset by Jesus’ disruptive preaching that they wanted to put him to death. (Matthew 12:14) They were unable to see any truth except their own opinions. They considered repentance to be failure.
How do you usually respond to a disruption of your routine or your expectations? Do you view disruption of your routines to be an inconvenience? Do you view changes to your expectations as an offense? Have you considered the possibility that those disruptions might be God calling you to repentance? We necessarily rely on our habits, but our habits can be obstacles to Grace. The Christmas season calls us to real and lasting change, the kind of change that allows us to welcome the Savior with faith. If you had a stressful and confusing Christmas season, perhaps in the midst of all the disruption you can hear God’s call to repentance.