Although a crib (we have two in the Cathedral) has been set up in St Joseph's chapel, we are not quite ready for the birth of the Lord. This weekend, St John the Baptist challenges us to accept the coming of the Lord in our lives as something that requires us to change and do things differently.
Soon after the National Lottery began, I went to the Post Office on Victoria Street one Saturday, on behalf of our syndicate of Cathedral priests, to buy my ticket. It happened I stood in the queue next to a Rabbi. For everyone else, this was just too much – I mean, what are the chances of a catholic priest and a rabbi being in there together? So we found ourselves the centre of attention, eagerly asked to give numbers by gaping punters convinced that their luck was in.
It’s one of those straws people clutch at. The Lottery – it would solve everything. Unlikely as it is that we will win, we still have that picture in our minds of what we would look like if we did. Horoscopes, lotteries, lucky charms – I can’t think anyone really believes in these things, and they’re all a bit of a laugh, but still we keep half an eye on them, because they answer that question within all of us, “What should we do?” And there is nothing new in that. Take John the Baptist. People thought their luck was in, that he was the talisman, the lucky charm, who would solve their problems. Perhaps deep down they knew he wouldn’t - not for them, anyway - but they still had to ask, “What shall we do?”
John was their horoscope, their lucky lottery ticket. They were desperate to hang on to him – indeed they thought they might make him their Messiah, their king. And John at once set about telling them that it isn’t that easy, that we can’t get simple solutions to the difficult problems of our life, at least, not ones that will let us off the hook. But that’s what we want. We wish that everything could be solved with a little good luck. Minimum effort; it’s what drives talentless youths to think they can shortcut their way to pop stardom at the push of a remote control button. And that’s what Christmas is all about – at least for most people. We’d like to solve the world with Christmas, as if Christmas makes all the difficult problems go away. So long as we’re a little bit nicer to each other, so long as we smooth over difficult relationships with an over-expensive present, so long as we sing about peace and goodwill to all, then we don’t really have to worry about doing it. No wonder Christmas is being celebrated earlier and earlier. It’s our lucky ticket, and it doesn’t demand much of us, really. Oh yes, there's the struggling with shopping bags through Debenhams, the squeeze onto the number 11 'bus on Oxford Street, but we’d prefer that any day over trying to stop genocide in Darfur, or trying to feed people starving in Zimbabwe, or trying to stop Jews and Palestinians killing each other. We know, deep down, that Christmas doesn’t really work, that come mid-January we’ll be back to our old miserable selves and the world will look as ever it did. But for these few weeks it’s nice to pretend that this is the solution, that this is all we have to do to make everything right.
John, however, stresses that there are no easy solutions to God, that he can’t be neatly added to our lives like a bauble on a Christmas tree. God is spiky; he leaves an unpleasant taste in the mouth. Indeed, with God you cannot have your cake and eat it – saying yes to God will mean saying no to something - or someone - else.
So, you might be moved to complain, there goes God again, demanding we turn our lives upside down for him, demanding that we upset our friends, demanding that we spoil the party. Why does it have to be so difficult to find the answers? Why does God have to spoil the party? Why is it all so complicated?
The reason is found in the second reading, and it is a reason as shocking as anything God has to say. God wants us to take our faith seriously, to risk all the ridicule and difficulty it brings, to struggle to follow his law, for one simple reason. He wants us to be happy.
Perhaps that sounds ridiculous. Like the headmaster telling the pupil whom he’s about to cane that this is for his own good. Like the condemned men in olden days who had to thank their executioners. But in fact, God is making perfect sense: there is no rule, no law, no demand made by God that is its own justification. Everything God asks of us serves one purpose – our happiness. St Paul has God emphasise this; "I repeat - what I want is your happiness." A real happiness, that is, answering our deepest needs and all that question that is forever at the back of our minds, “What should I do?” It is a real, and not an abstract or pious, happiness that comes from knowing we are free, truly free, to become who we should be. Such happiness (which doesn't exclude the lighter form of happiness!) is worth the struggle, the sacrifice, the difficulties. Such happiness is worth an awful lot more.
This weekend's gospel contains a challenge to each one of us. The challenge is, to walk to the manger on Christmas day and to ask myself, “What should I do?” And I can choose – to see it as the signal for a party. Or to see it as a call to change my life, a change which will require taking seriously the demands of my faith, but which also promises my happiness, a happiness for ever in the Lord.