From Missionary Phillip Beisswenger’s sermon on December 6:
It’s an honor and joy to be here with you in Kingsport, and I bring greetings in the name of Jesus from Guatemala, the Land of Eternal Spring. Someone might wonder about the timing of this visit, and with good reason. Why a delegation from Guatemala at this particular time, when the weather’s colder, when so many people are busy with important pre-Christmas activities? On one level, the reason is that the school year runs differently in Guatemala, and now is when more people are available for such a trip. But on a deeper lever, we remember that this is the season of Advent, the coming of Christ. We remember that Christ came under less-than-ideal circumstances—a census, difficult travel, an uncomfortable stable. And we remember that Christ will come again, also under unexpected circumstances, like a thief in the night. As people of faith, we understand that God operates in ways we don’t always expect or understand, especially at this time of year.
By the way, you at Kingsport First Presbyterian Church have been great innkeepers.
To be honest with you, in Guatemala, many Presbyterians feel uneasy about Christmas. They tend not to fully embrace this holiday, for several reasons.
One reason is that Christmas in Guatemala is dominated by extravagant, crowded street processions of the Roman Catholic Church that Presbyterian don’t find meaningful.
Secondly, the Pentecostal churches, the largest segment of Protestantism, are adamant that Christmas is unscriptural, and they denounce it as a pagan holiday.
Third, Guatemalan Presbyterians object to much of the Christmas culture—Santa, reindeer, snowmen—that’s imported from other parts of the world.
Fourth, Guatemalan Presbyterians observe that Christmas is used by many people as an excuse for indulgence, excessive drinking feasting and partying.
On town squares throughout Guatemala, including Cobán’s, instead of a Christmas tree or a holiday tree, you find a Gallo tree. A gallo is a rooster, and it’s also the emblem of the country’s most popular beer. So instead of a star topping these trees, there’s a rooster’s head, announcing that tis the season to buy a six-pack of suds.
Lastly, economic poverty keeps many Presbyterians, especially the indigenous, from partaking in the consumerism of the season. Christmas for them is austere, often without gifts, only tamales, firecrackers & a few familiar carols over the radio.
Yes, Presbyterians in Guatemala tend to downplay Christmas. Which makes me wonder if St. Mark wasn’t actually a Guatemalan Presbyterian. You see, Mark definitely downplays Christmas, even ignoring it altogether.
We know each of the four Gospels approaches Christmas differently. Matthew tells about Christ’s birth from perspective of Joseph and the messianic connections. Luke offers the perspective of Mary and the marginalized. John stresses the cosmic perspective of the incarnation—the Word made flesh. Then there’s Mark, who makes no mention Christ’s birth at all. He makes no mention of Mary, Joseph, the angels, Bethlehem, the manger or shepherds. Instead, Mark starts with the Prophet Isaiah, about 800 years before Christ. So far, so good. But another prophet appears in the limelight, John the Baptist, about 30 years after Jesus’ birth. The birth story gets skipped over altogether. Instead of Bethlehem, we get the wilderness. Rather than a birth in a stable, we get baptisms in the Jordan River. The baby in swaddling clothes is replaced by a strange prophet wearing camel hair and a leather belt. Instead of angels singing, John the Baptist starts railing about repentance and the confession their sins. How did John get into the picture? John comes across like one of those photo bombers who’s always jumping into somebody else’s snapshot, stealing attention for himself.
As it turns out, a key theme in Advent is penitence. That’s what the purple candles stand for. At first I thought the purple candles stood for royalty, the coming of the King of kings. But actually, the purple is for penitence. When we light the three purple candles during Advent, we’re declaring this to be a season of repentance. The pink candle symbolizes joy, so according to the Advent wreath there should be three times as much repentance as joy. Maybe one of our favorite Christmas carols, along with “Joy to the World, The Lord Is come,” ought to be “Just As I Am, Without One Plea.”
Unlike the U.S., where the holiday season officially starts right after Thanksgiving, on Black Friday, in Guatemala, the holidays start with a tradition called“La Quema del Diablo” (the burning of the devil). On Dec. 7, people comb their homes looking for unwanted stuff they can pile into big bonfires. It’s burned along with effigies of Satan as a symbolic ridding of evil powers. The smoke and soot in the air, along with noise from firecrackers, is supposed to scare off wicked spirits. As a finale, men dress up in devil costumes and children gleefully chase them around.
In years past our family has done our own version. We buy a red devil piñata in the market, and I pontificate to our kids about all the ungodly stuff that can interfere with our appreciation for Jesus’ birth. We stuff the piñata with firecrackers and light a match to it, to our kids’ delight, blowing up Satan as a vivid and loud start to the Advent traditions that point to the approaching “Light of the world.”
So, during Advent we light the four candles in succession, and eventually the Christ candle in the middle, and we’re finished. There’s a beginning and an ending, just the way we like it. Unless we notice that another important part of the wreath’s symbolism is its round shape. It’s a circle that keeps going around and around forever, without end. No clear staring point, no obvious ending. Kind of like, well, the Gospel of Mark.
Interesting enough, the title of the Gospel of Mark isn’t really “The Gospel of Mark.” That title was added several centuries after the gospel was written. The original title is the very first verse, which reads, “The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In other words, with those words as the title, that means the entire book is just the beginning. The gospel keeps unfolding. It keeps going, nonstop, from generation to generation, from place to place, from grace upon grace. We today, in countries like the United States and Guatemala, are the continuation of God’s story of salvation.
As if to accentuate the point, the Gospel of Mark doesn’t even give us a clear-cut ending. Most biblical scholars agree that the gospel’s final passage, verses 16:9-20, aren’t an original part of the book. The book end abruptly, with confusion amongst the disciples, as if to say that more chapters need to be written, that we’re called to write them with our lives until Christ’s return brings all things to their conclusion.
None of us should let our lives be seen by God as a place where the gospel didn’t continue, where the gospel came to a screeching halt, where it stopped. I hope that in the book of life, next to each of names, the words “the end” won’t be stamped. In the same way that Mark’s Gospel was titled “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” may each of our lives be titled “The continuation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
Years ago, the Mayans in the region around Cobán had special traditions that reinforced their community bonds. One Q’eqchi’ ritual involved the relighting of fires. In the middle of the village sat the temple, where a perpetual fire burned inside. Fires also burned in the hearths of each homes. If someone’s hearth went cold, people could borrow a flame from a neighbor, or go to the temple itself, to relight it. However, on an appointed day every seven years, everybody’s fires were extinguished. After enduring a set time of darkness, families would emerge from their homes and process toward the temple. They’d approach the temple altar, take fire from it, and carefully carry it back home to relight their hearth. The ritual reminded the Q’eqchi’ people of the source of their fire and heat, and that it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
That’s what the season of Advent provide for us, a reconnecting with the source of our light. That’s what symbols like the Advent wreath offer, a rekindling of the true light. That’s what happens when we’re drawn together in Christ’s name to celebrate his coming, we experience how the true light, which enlightens everyone, has come into the world. May his light burn brightly in us, as the gospel about Jesus Christ continues.