Second Advent (B)
You may be familiar with the nursery rhyme:
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick,
Jack jump over the candlestick.
This rhyme is first recorded here in the UK around 1815. Jumping over candlesticks, it would seem, was a form of fortune telling and a sport. Good luck would be yours, it was said, if you could jump over a lit a candle without extinguishing the flame.
However, I have read that the same rhyme originally had another meaning and in the context of today’s Gospel it is worth considering.
In just over 11 days’ time the Winter Solstice will be upon us. After that, the days will start getting longer, albeit very slowly. In pre-Christian times, this was when bonfires were lit and rituals were held around the flames, including dancing and jumping over the fires, to implore the Sun God to return to his heights and bring warmth and growth to crops once more.
A similar ritual was held for the Summer Solstice, this time imploring the Sun God not to stay away forever.
In time the Church ‘Christianised’ these customs, just as it did with what we still call Christmas. At the time of the Winter Solstice we still light fires (all right, candles) as we celebrate the God of the Heavens sending his Son (Sun?), Jesus Christ, to give New Life to his people.
And whose birth do we celebrate at the time of the Summer Solstice on 21 June? Yes, John the Baptist. And just as Christians ‘borrowed’ elements of the Winter Solstice rituals, they did the same for the Summer Solstice. John became ‘Jack’ and as people jumped over flames, commemorating the Baptist, they sang:
Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over The candlestick.
John/Jack is presented to us in the liturgy today as the one promised by the Prophet Isaiah in the First Reading (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11). We have got used to hearing about him in Advent but to his contemporaries his activity was anything but customary. He emerged at a time when prophets were thought to have been a thing of the past. He called on fellow Israelites to change the direction of their lives (‘repentance’) if in order to have a closer relationship with God. And to do this, he asked them to give a radical sign of their sincerity by becoming immersed in the flowing waters of the River Jordan. By submitting to this external action they would be expressing their interior commitment to God; they would be cleansed of their old ways and enter into a ‘new’ or better relationship with God.
John, a Jew, was addressing fellow Jews of their need to change. But he also was calling them to be prepared for someone God was going to send them. This person, he said, would offer them something even greater than he, John, could offer: this Someone would fill them with the very Spirit of God.
How do we apply John’s call to our own lives?
We might ask ourselves: in what direction is my life heading? Am I content with things as they are or do I know that I need to change something? If so, what is stopping me? Am I the cause of hurt or pain in someone’s life? Do I bring joy rather than misery or pain to my loved ones? If so, what would they want me to do? Of what do I need to repent? Is my lifestyle in keeping with my beliefs? Should – and could – I be a more merciful and forgiving person? Should – and could – I be more generous to people in need?
The voice of this curious man, John the Baptist, has the same message for us that he had for fellow Jews all those centuries ago? So what do I need to change in my life to let God in? And what can I do this Advent to be prepared for the One who is to come?
Holy Name, Jesmond
10 December 2017