I went to Episcopal Church today for Advent season. Liturgy ran. I was in a Christmassy mood. It was a liturgy aimed at the divine—a place for God’s people in a ritual like magic, sympathetically. What else would we (or anyone) be doing there?
We stood up, kneeled, sat, recited. Some gestured, waving their arms in a cross symbol during certain words, on cue. Holy theatrics, I think, in a language of beauty and depth.
A canticle from the choir: “Surely it is God who saves me,” opening a space for sincerity and reflection. And the older couple behind me spoke, laughing, snickering, making jokes (this too, I believe, is part of the liturgy). The woman to the right of me stood much more seriously, listening observantly. The people in front of me anticipated every cue outlined in the liturgical text, obedient to the traditional structure. And I still don’t know what I’m doing there. I guess I like the community, the variety of approaches to faith. And who, really, is truly sacred here?
The Gospel, or the portion of the liturgy labelled “The Gospel,” from Luke 3:7-18, read aloud. John calls the crowd around him a brood of vipers, undermining their claims to tradition—maybe to salvation by ancestry (what is salvation? Who is saved? From what?) Then John gets angry, I imagine, and tells them that trees die (in some uncertain sense)—they’re thrown into the fire (what does that even mean if this is a parable for human beings???)—if they don’t “bear good fruit.” Supposedly this means something to the crowd, that they might be the subject of wrath. It might be important to see what this section does later.
Then John tells people to be generous. Two-coaters give to no-coaters (if you just have one coat, you’re permitted to keep it, I assume. Loophole: keep only one of everything). Whoever has food must give to those who have none (loophole closed). Tax collectors: only do your jobs, sure; same goes for the soldiers—and be satisfied with wages.
Apparently, people thought that John was “the Messiah” for saying these things. Be generous, and be bold enough to tell people to be generous, and you’ll be accused of being some form of messianic figure. Those who are not generous, are or are not content with their situation, well, they’ll burn in fire. I like to think that we’re already burning.
John continued his “exhortations.” Naturally, these suck. “Don’t you understand their situation?” we might ask, or “people encounter trauma, so they collect money, food, coats; their trauma causes them to hoard things to make up for the insecurity they feel.” Sure. Also, we can throw some uncertain psychology into the mix as a new God of the gaps argument, and it is perfectly legitimate. “There must be a structural cause; a psychological factor; a materialistic explanation,” and certainly there actually is an unknown explanation waiting to be discovered. These causes are very real. John might be an inconsiderate asshole here. But I’d like to think of what these exhortations might do, because John gets people to start asking, more generally, “how should I live? What should I do to live a good life?” Or, as some say, “ethics.”
Very quick answer: he throws salvation to the wind. You are not safe. You are going to die. But even if you find safety beyond death in a post-mortem fantasy; you are not safe. You will burn anyways. No tradition, no culture, no society, no religion can save you. Here, people wake up. Jump into their own skin. Maybe, if they’re listening, develop compassion. So, supposedly, John proclaimed “the good news” after these exhortations. But maybe the goal of the “turn or burn” part that the crazies love is to break down those walls, those false securities, those “fabrications” (in a Buddhist term)—those things we build up to make life feel stable and intellectual and easy—break those things down to see through opaque mediations of life, maybe, to encounter the other, extending compassion.
One more thing, requiring generalization. Maybe we share more than just literal coats, money, food. What do we share with the crowd: the soldiers, the cheating tax collectors, those who have more than they need—those who, at worst, are in that traumatic situation, that cycle, those who are the subjects of the exhortation? Send them to therapy? Defer the responsibility? To some extent, yes. But, more fully, I am not sure—it’s complex and tricky. Maybe this is religion at its best, why we’re listening to that sermon in the first place (John’s model, here, in today’s liturgy: find no salvation—extend compassion). You are not safe—you were never safe in the first place, so do not collect more stuff to build up a thin sense of security; give wholeheartedly to those in need.