“With…fire,” (Matthew 3:10). The life, mission and message of John the Baptist is always striking and captivating. From the way he is dressed, to his residence in the desert, to his talk of radical repentance, vipers, and fire. John’s desire is to shake up our world view.
This Sunday, he highlights the fragile and profound nature of human life: that our lives will have an ending to them, that when we sit with the notion of our finality we become more aware of how we need to change something about ourselves; that we need to live more for God. John’s entire life is molded around and pointed to Jesus Christ’s coming. In Advent, we are called to both listen and become like John the Baptist: change our lives and proclaim how Christ changes everything.
The Baptist’s focus on fire is a pivotal portion of his directives to those who listen to him. Fire contains the key qualities of light, warmth and transformation. It served as an ancient flashlight and furnace while also utilizing wood as fuel. Wood plays a large role in the Christian faith. Sin enters because of a tree, Joseph is a carpenter and Jesus’ life begins with being placed in the wood of the manger and ends with the wood of the cross. Wood fuels and surrounds the life of Christ.
This fuel aspect is the key: no wood equals no fire, but the fire also destroys what it needs for its very existence. In order for there to be rays of light and flames of heat, there must be fuel. That is why we always need to “feed the fire.” The flames will take the fuel and radically transform it, making something greater out of them. This is why John talks so much of fire, because it is bound up with his main message of repentance.
There are countless TV shows, Netflix series, and movies that have death or near death experiences as their backdrop and plot. Some of the most popular hospital dramas contain the high adrenaline scene of nurses pushing stretchers through crowded hallways in order to get the patient on the table for medical assistance.
When the scene is reaching the climax of intensity you will hear the cardiac machines beeping sporadically, and then the visual will move to the straight line fixed on the monitor, showing that the patient’s heartbeat has stopped. Inevitably, someone will yell for the defibrillator, commonly called paddles, in order to send electrical shock waves through the person’s body and essentially reboot or jump-start them.
Success means the person often “comes back” and the show or movie ends with a reversal of their heartbeat and a reversal of their life. They become closer to family members, more patient and caring to strangers, and gain an acute awareness of the precious nature of their existence. They know they have a “shelf-life” so the patient transforms their life. They move forward with a renewed understanding of what life is about. Why is it that our proximity to or our awareness of death makes us want to change?
The frailty of life and the reality of death naturally leads humanity to repent. Repentance is a complete change of direction and renewal of life. Why do we need to change? Simple: God is coming; Christ is being born; Jesus is entering the scene. Often times, we connect John the Baptist with Lent, and its focus on fasting while we contemplate the consequences of Christ’s death. However, Advent is also meant to orient our daily lives towards the fact that one day we will all fight death, and we will not be victorious. It will conquer our lives.
When we reflect on the radical fact that our lives have expiration dates, we are forced to ask ourselves some questions: How am I using the life that has been given to me? Am I living in a way that places God at the center? How would I need to change my direction if I knew that death was closer than I might like to think? What if I knew I was going to pass away on December 25th? How would my preparation for Christmas change?
Jesus takes the wood of the cross and it fuels his death. Except with Christ, his fire extinguishes death and brings us life that transforms everything it touches. This Advent, let us feed the fire, let us heed John’s call to allow Christ to use us as wood and fuel so our faith will go ablaze with his own life and love.
Let us always recognize the desire for Christ to radically transform the path we find ourselves on, while living with the transformative awareness that with his birth, comes life; that we await the child whose life will mean death is no more.