[By Canon Maria Tjeltveit, Rector of Church of the Mediator, Allentown]
Second Sunday in Advent
December 4, 2011
Church of the Mediator
I admit I was pretty shocked to see it on the sign for the Lehigh Valley Mall. Right underneath “Come Meet Santa at the Mall” it said “Come Meet John the Baptist at the Mall.” This was a first!
I turned into the crowded parking lot and finally found a space. Inside the mall it wasn’t too hard to spot Santa. Actually I saw the line first; little kids fidgeting, their parents looking bored or trying to break up squabbles before they got out of hand. There was Santa seated on a large chair saying “Ho! Ho! Ho!” his white mustache and beard bouncing up and down. He welcomed a small child onto to his ample lap; her sticky hand grazing his red and white suit. I stopped for a while and listened as Santa asked each child if he or she had been good (they all had!) and what they wanted for Christmas. The lists seemed as long as the line: Let’s Rock Elmo!, Fijit Friends, Lalaloopsy Silly Hair Dolls and LEGO Ninjango, Leapfrog Leap Pad Explorer, Kidizoom Twist, and Harry Potter Scene It, Angry Bird toys, Barbie Doggie Water Park, Moshi Monsters Talking Plush, Baby Annabelle…and on and on. Each child seemed to want every hot toy there was. Santa smiled and patted their heads, then had the obligatory picture before each child moved on. The parents looked glad to get the ordeal over with as they took their children’s hands and the animated children dragged them off to the nearest toy store.
I had to look a little harder to find John the Baptist. He was over in a quieter corner of the mall next to the water fountain. I guess Jordan Creek is a little too cold this time of year for outdoor baptisms. John, too, had a line waiting for him, although the line was shorter and the people in it were older, a few children but mostly teenagers and adults. John was sitting on a folding chair, dressed in a loose camel hair outfit that was drawn together by a leather belt but still hung from his thin body. His dark hair and beard were unkempt but his face and eyes glowed with an inner light that was compelling. He seemed both young and old at the same time. Those who approached him did not try to sit on his knobby knees but sat on another folding chair across from to him. Again I stopped to listen.
John looked in the face of each person who came to him and said “What do you need to let God turn your life in the right direction?” The answers didn’t always come at once but John was patient. I heard one person speak of how he was estranged from his parents and needed reconciliation. Another spoke of wrestling with addition to alcohol and pain medications and needing to be freed. One spoke of being in grief during this time when everyone else was celebrating and needing to know God was there. A teenager spoke about feeling pressured to go further with her boyfriend than she felt comfortable and needing to be able to assert herself and live out her own values. Someone mentioned feeling overwhelmed by the amount of stuff he already had and needing to find how to give in a meaningful way to people who didn’t have enough. A child talked about how he and his sister were always fighting or mean to each other and needed to remember that they really did care about each other. One had been unemployed for months and needed to believe that there was hope. Another felt so rushed in this season that she needed to know how to make time for God…. Each person’s need was different, personal, and it seemed like just speaking it out loud to John broke something open for them.
John would listen to each person. Sometimes he would give advice on what they could do. Then he would take each to the water fountain and let the water run over their hands and head. He would say to each one, as he handed them a paper towel, “I have baptized you for repentance, for turning your life around, and for forgiveness, but this is just the beginning. Someone is coming who is greater than me. I have washed you with water but he is coming and will draw you to God with the Holy Spirit. He is coming soon. Wait for him. Look for him. Continue to work with God to turn your life in the right direction. The one who is coming will come to you.”
I can’t say that I understood all of what John was about. But the line of people stayed steady.
I wandered around the mall a little more, going into a few stores. As I got near the exit, I recognized some of the people who had been in the line to meet Santa. The parents were weighted down with bags and looked frazzled, sometimes dragging a reluctant child by the hand as he cried that he wanted something from Cinnabon and how could Mommy be so mean not to let him have it.
I also recognized some of the people who had been in line to meet John the Baptist. Some of them were holding a bag or two, a few holding a child’s hand. Their hair was still damp, but their faces showed a kind of serenity and hope and they smiled at the people they passed as they went out into the cold air.
I watched for a few minutes and then I went and got in line to talk to John. What do I need to let God turn my life in the right direction?