I was raised, with the exception of a few visits to my grandfather’s parish, in a secular home. Yet December always brought with it a sense of anticipation and excitement. One might assume, for a secular child, that the excitement was tied to presents, family, maybe even the two weeks off school, or perhaps, at least in the younger years, with a “visit from Santa Claus.”
However, there was something more, something unspoken and profoundly more important: hope. This hope was bound to something greater than the natural order of things I saw around me, which even in my very young life seemed quite unfriendly, disordered, chaotic, even frightening. Where did this hope at Christmas come from? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure. But it was manifested for me in the desire to see the story of Jesus’ birth in the stained glass windows of my grandfather’s church, and heard and remembered in the only two hymns I knew: “Silent Night” and “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending.”
As I grew up I invested myself heavily in a new religion, atheism, and in its methodological correlate, absolutist empiricism. I remember one Christmas during my teenage years, thinking with despair at my loss of the hope I’d felt as a child: “Yeah, with clouds descending. What, is he a Carebear?”
A series of jarring events as a young adult, beginning with 9/11 and culminating with the death of a friend in Iraq, eventually brought me back into the Anglican Church I’d encountered briefly as a child. I was desperate to find something and someone to hope upon; to whom else could I go? (cf. John 6:68) It seemed I’d tried nearly all the world’s “isms” — wise men, prophets, intellectual endeavors, even sports teams — without relief, without finding the source of all things and thereby a meaning in which I could ground my hope.
I began attending an Anglican parish in the middle of November and so was quickly caught up in the excitement of the Advent season. It marked a sort of return, for reasons yet unknown to me, to the excitement I’d felt as a child at this time of year. And then I heard the oddest thing: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:7-8).
“What! Who is John talking to,” I thought. “Oh, well he must just be talking to the Jews.” That’s what I thought for a few days. But rather obsessed with my new faith, I then looked back at the readings and saw in Zephaniah this:
Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! … The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing …. at that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you …. and I will restore your fortunes (Zeph. 3:14, 17, 20).
I thought, “Now how can God be one?” He tells Israel he’s going to rescue them, renewing them in his love in the Old Testament (Zeph. 3:17) and the New (Rom. 9-11), but in wrath, he is seemingly going to cut them off here if they don’t repent: “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire?” (Luke 3:9). Is receiving God’s love contingent upon their repentance? I was deeply confused with a heavy heart when I made an appointment with my priest to discuss my conundrum. Had I misunderstood who this God is?
My priest’s words to me cut to the heart: “This passage” he said to me, “is directed at you, and at me, and at all those who want to come into the fullness of their particular lives given by God.”
“How am I part of a brood of vipers?” I thought to myself. “Am I a viper?” What does this mean? It was not until hearing Numbers 21:4-9 — where God sends poisonous serpents amongst the Israelites who confess their sin, make supplication through Moses to God, who in turn rescues them by having Moses mount a serpent upon a poll — that I understood the truth: indeed, I am a viper. In fact, we are all, at least at times, vipers. In some capacity each one of us is infused with the poison of sin, ready to sink our poison-filled fangs into those by whom we often feel threatened in some way.
The serpent deceiver of Eve and of Adam becomes the figure of sin and death within the Israelite community, which is wandering the sometimes-desiccated desert of life created and sustained by the Israelites’ turning away from God, a turning away, a wandering where we all find ourselves at various points in our lives. My priest was right: heart hardened by a lack of fit between my self constructions, my ideals, my desires, and the reality I saw around me, I’d lost hope. I had, as a child, turned away from the God who knew me, who made himself known to me, in pursuit of a life of self-protection, of self-focus; a life measured by the explanatory power of only those things my finite, sinful vision could make out “through the glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12).
This is the whole point: we all still see through a glass, darkly, as Paul puts it. We live in this time awaiting Christ’s second coming where we will be brought to see God face-to-face. And in this time of waiting, we so often still engage with one another like vipers, lashing out and latching on to others in order to protect ourselves from the things that scare us, challenge us, and threaten to tear down the self-constructed identities we have built up, the grudges and entrenchment that we have developed with members of our own church(es) and within our own communities.
The reading for this week, in which John called all of us to repent from a life spent as and amongst a great brood of vipers, is indeed good news. It is good news precisely because it demands that we face God’s grace and allow ourselves to be changed by it, so that we can live with the assurance of a hope that is not accomplished and fragilely sustained by us. I would suggest that we find hope not by running away from the people and things that challenge us or that anger and even enrage us, but by remaining where we are so that God can, through his vipers (all of us, that is), bring us from death into new life in Christ.
“Wait on the Lord” (Isa. 40:31), we are told, for, “unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1). The problem with running or building on account of our own inclinations is that, as Isaiah puts it, we will grow weary. And with weariness so often comes a sense of helplessness, frustration, maybe even anger and despair, and even hopelessness, something I often hear from faithful Christians, myself included.
The practicalities of repentance and waiting for those of us in the Anglican Communion are obvious enough. Since my coming into the Church a decade ago, the issue of sexuality has ripped and torn apart the lives of individuals, as well as our ecclesial bodies, much like vipers might bite into and poison the body, the very blood of a living organism. And yet, I am joined to this body whose contentious life together has included constant and continuous arguments over the ordination of women, over our role in war, over our role in mission and colonization, over liturgy, over the fundamental doctrines of the Church, over Church polity, even over the very being of God and the proper response of faith. In figural terms, these arguments find their being and their meaning within Israel’s own life before God. We brood of vipers indeed!
But we are not left here. We are not left merely with the agonistic struggles of a body ordered to chaos; rather, we are left at the foot of the Cross being drawn across the mountains and valleys of Christ’s own life, given up for us on the Cross. We are drawn to look up, to be attentive within these lives of struggle that Paul tells us about (Rom. 7), not with fear and anxiety, but with hope (Rom. 8). Hope arises for all of us, I believe, when we are willing to lay down our lives and take up the one we are given in Christ Jesus. Hope arises when we are willing to let go of clinging to that which we think makes us who we are, and instead, become willing to give ourselves over to the only one capable of changing hearts and minds that still see through a glass darkly: the Lord himself. This is the good news to which John calls us for this third Sunday in Advent.
The featured image is a 13th century wall painting in a baptistery in Parma, Italy. The photo was taken by Holly Hayes (2010), and it is licensed under Creative Commons.