In mid rant, John insists God can do this, and will, if we do not transform our stony selves into living children of God. God will not go childless into oblivion, John shouts.
So, how do you turn a stone into a child? John says, tears and generosity can do it. Then, for good measure, he threatens axes and winnowing forks if we fail, if we grow wooden, or choke with weeds. After that, he says, comes fire.
It is John who describes himself as water and Jesus as fire. When the crowd presses John to say he is the Messiah he replies No, I only baptize with water but the one we are all waiting for will use fire and the Spirit.
Jesus, by contrast, speaks words that fall like water on parched ground. With his cooling spirit Jesus calms fevers of fear and guilt, shame and madness, even stops the smoldering rot of disease and death. Jesus offers an eternally quenching cup to soothe the charred soul, and his coolness holds in fiery encounters with Judas, Herod, Pilate, the Roman henchmen. In Luke’s gospel Jesus crosses the sea of Galilee again and again, and each crossing seems to refill him with power. In some mystical way, water supports and sustains him.
Jesus mingles fire and water in alchemy – mystical fire, like the burning bush. And Jesus expands and changes John’s advice: tears become grace; generosity becomes blessing; love becomes central. Yet, John’s challenge remains the theme of Advent, and the great question of Christmas: how do you make a child of God from cold-hearts?
Mind without soul may blast some universe
to might have been and stop ten thousand stars,
but not one heart beat of this child . . .
- ee cummings, in spiralling ecstatically this
The literature of Christmas explores avenues of answers. Charles Dickens writes that memory, hope and desire are the mix that makes Scrooge a Christmas child again. Remembering himself as young, vulnerable and in pain, in Christmases past; meeting a boy whose loving heart wins his in Christmas present; and weeping at the terrible winnowing that awaits them both if he fails to change; these remake Scrooge into a child of God.
George Bailey, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a kind man who is overwhelmed on one disastrous day, learns to see all he has meant to others, how he has helped them to stay human, and is freed from turning himself to stone on a desperate Christmas Eve.
For the Littlest Angel, having his grief for the life he has lost chosen as the greatest gift for the Child of Christmas lifts him at last into heaven. For the Grinch it is being given a gift by a generous child. In these stories, and in our own tales, a mingling of water and fire in the crucible of experience enlivens what has turned to stone in us, and makes us human again.
And what is it we drink in the chalice we share, what is our own blood, if not water with a form of fire in it? But there is no formula for making us children of God. The transformation never happens the same way twice.
So how do you make a child from stone? From prophet to prophet, the challenge and the question have come to us, until we receive them from John, who does not have the answer. And so the urgency passes on, to a woman whom Luke tells us is already full of grace, capable of answering – and questioning – the Angel.
Mary of Nazareth arrives on the Advent stage in the nick of time. Knitting the eternal into dust, she makes a Child with life that can outlast a lifetime – mortal (tired and weary) and immortal (shining even in a body broken). Advent moves into her agency.
A stable lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
(from Richard Wilbur’s Christmas Hymn)
In the dark of the year we wander among miracles as the hopes and fears of all the years are met in us.
1. The Hand of God Giving Life to Adam. Michelangelo Buonarroti. 1508-12. Cappella Sistina. Vatican City. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
2. Fire Window. Washington National Cathedral, D.C. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
3. Fresco from Kariye Camii, Anastasis showing Christ-pulling Adam and Eve out of their graves. 1310-20. Kariye Museum, Istanbul, Turkey. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
4. It’s a Wonderful Life, freeze frame from the Frank Capra film. George in despair.
5. Annunciation by He Qi. Nanqing, China. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.