12 Dec 2010
“‘What did you go out to the desert to see? ... Someone dressed in fine clothing? …A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.’” (Matt. 11:7-9) In the name …
Last Sunday 31 of us traveled out to Shakespeare and Company to see the one-man play Santa Land Diaries. It was David Sedaris’ autobiography of his own experiences as a middle-aged and under-employed artist living in New York City. He was so desperate for employment that he auditioned for the role of playing an elf in the Santa Land attraction at Macy’s Department Store. For about an hour and half the actor Peter Davenport depicted the real-life experiences of David Sedaris as he first applied for the job of portraying one of Santa’s elves and then of actually being one of Santa’s elves. The play begins with the actor getting his apartment ready for a cocktail party. He’s a sophisticated, New York City, adult male. Then he slowly leads up to the financial reality that forces him to consider playing an elf. When he slowly and deliberately takes out, piece by piece, and puts on piece by piece, his green, red and yellow elf costume, it’s hilarious to watch this dignified man turn into a velvet-clad elf named Crumpet. For most the rest of the play, this is the actor’s attire. In this costume of Crumpet the Elf he tells the audience about all the trials and tribulations he endured as parents rushed with their children to see Santa. He was hilarious when he was talking about Christmas Eve when 23 thousand people came through Santa Land in one last, final surge to sit on Santa’s lap before it was too late.
Now when David Sedaris was playing Crumpet the Elf that one year he had no idea about the effect those few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas would have on him. He saw Crumpet as a desperate means to pay the bills, and nothing more. A lot of the humour in the play was based on his satirical opinions of the other elves, the parents and even the Santas. He endured the job as an elf; he definitely did not embrace the job. But from that ordeal, David Sedaris the world-famous, best-selling author was born. In 1992 he submitted an audio essay to National Public Radio about his experiences in Santa Land. I remember hearing it on the radio and laughing out loud. So many other listeners were impressed by his radio submission that he was invited back to NPR on several other occasions. This all opened the way for his career to grow in ways I doubt he could have imagined. He went on to author six books of essays that all ended-up on the New York Times bestsellers list. And all of this success began in the bleakness of David Sedaris’ experience beneath the costume of Crumpet the Elf.
Now let’s jump back in time to John the Baptist. We met him last weekend preaching repentance in the desert at the height of his fame and reputation. Now we meet him again, but this time he’s in prison. His preaching had offended the powers that be of his day, and they had John arrested. From his prison cell, John sends out his disciples to ask Jesus a poignant and to us a surprising question: “‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’” What John is asking is whether or not Jesus is the Christ. John is getting ready for execution. His life and his ministry are nearly over. He wants to know if Jesus is the one. Even from prison John had heard the reports about this wonder-worker and powerful preacher of God’s word. But Jesus wasn’t exactly the kind of Messiah that John had expected. Last week we heard John preach: “The chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” John’s Messiah was coming to judge the world and to set it straight. Jesus, on the other hand, came and preached of love, forgiveness and brotherhood. Because of this John wonders, but he also questions. He hopes, but he also doubts. And so he sends his disciples to ask Jesus if He is the long-awaited one.
What I want to draw our attention to at this point is not Jesus’ answer, but what Jesus next says about John, that John is the one foretold by the prophet Isaiah who will prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. Then Jesus drops the bombshell: “‘If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah.’” Elijah was the Old Testament prophet who did not die, but was carried into heaven in a fiery chariot. It was promised that this Elijah would return before the coming of the Messiah. John was essential as the supernatural messenger sent by God to prepare His people for Jesus, and yet John may have died not even knowing whether or not Jesus was the promised one. We never hear how John responds to Jesus’ answer. We never know if John departed this life realizing the full importance of his preaching in the desert. And we can be almost certain that John never came to realize his embodiment of Elijah. But even though John may have been ignorant of his own role, God was still working through him. John may have died never realizing that he would be forever remembered as sent by God to lay the groundwork for Jesus to come into our world, but that’s exactly what he accomplished nonetheless.
Just like David Sedaris didn’t realize the life-changing importance of his few weeks as Crumpet the Elf while he was struggling to stay sane in Santa Land, just like John the Baptist didn’t realize the sacred importance of his desert preaching while he sat in Herod’s prison cell, so we are asked to consider this Advent Sunday the possibility that God is working through us in ways unknown. That’s a powerful and hope-filled message. David Sedaris was nearly broke, and yet his life was changing before he even knew it. John was in prison and his life was going to help change the world, and he never knew it. These are examples of hope in difficult times. The idea that God works in mysterious ways through our unaware efforts is an incentive to continue the struggle for the good, the right and the moral even when these seem always on the defensive. What we do casually, without exceptional fanfare or recognition, without significant sign of success, can play some part in God’s plans for tomorrow. Each today, each effort, can be of sacred importance. This awakening to the potential of God in the present is an Advent message I hope we may take seriously as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ whose birth brought God here into our world and still among us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo