I have been thinking repeatedly about the Hans Christian Andersen story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Many of you will know it, but some may not, the story of a self-absorbed Emperor whose fixation is obtaining and being seen in ever new fine clothes. Two swindlers see an opportunity and portray themselves as exceptional weavers, who not only weave the most extraordinary clothes, but their clothes cannot be seen by those who are ignorant and not fit for their positions. The Emperor, intrigued by what these clothes could do for him, commissions the weavers to make him new clothes. And the weavers go about their work never putting one thread on their looms. The Emperor sends his officials to witness the progress, and each observes nothing on the loom, but for fear of being deemed ignorant or not fit for their position, they each witness to the extraordinary fabrics, the beautiful colours and patterns they have seen. And finally it is the Emperor himself who goes to see and receive the new clothes, and with his officials, none of them seeing anything including the Emperor, all declare them magnificent! And the Emperor takes off his clothes and is fitted by the weavers into nonexistent clothes and goes out in procession before his subjects that all may see the Emperor’s long anticipated new clothes. Everyone can see that the Emperor is wearing nothing, but no one dares say so, many declaring the clothes exceptional and a perfect fit. Until a child says, “He has nothing on.” And what begins as a whisper at first from one person to another, finally becomes the witness of the entire town, “He has nothing on.” And, the Emperor shivers, suspecting they are right. But he thinks, ‘This procession has got to go on.’ So he walks more proudly than ever, as his noblemen hold high the train that isn't there at all.”
Part of me has been thinking about this story in reference to an outgoing president, and a “vaccine summit,” or a rally, and false claims of victory that even a child can see through. But the procession goes on, even as more and more see what the child witnessed, he is an emperor with no clothes.
And part of me has been thinking about this story and John, and his example, as a faithful Advent witness. Advent needs faithful witnesses. Surely this 2020 Advent needs faithful witnesses like John. Not fearful ones who want only to see what they and everyone else believes we are to see, what’s safe to see, what no one will criticize us for seeing. But those who like a child, speak and expose the truth; God’s truth.
John is that witness. The religious authorities send officials out to John to question who he is. And John tells the truth. He is not the Messiah, the Christ, the anointed of God. So, they ask if he is Elijah, or a prophet? And John again answers, “No.” He is a witness, a voice crying out in the wilderness, make straight the way of God, like the prophet Isaiah spoke of. And further questioned, if he is not any of these, “why is he baptizing?” John answers, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one coming after me; I am not fit to untie his sandals.” John knows exactly who he is, a witness; to one who is among us, whom we do not know. But John knows, and serves as an Advent witness to Jesus, the Messiah, among us, preparing God’s way. There is another story that some of you may know. Its source is uncertain and has been told and appeared in various settings and sources.
In the woods that surrounded a monastery, a rabbi lived in a small hut. Occasionally, the monks would see the rabbi walking in the woods and, almost hypnotically, they would say to one another, “The rabbi walks in the woods.”
The abbot was greatly distraught at the decline of the monastery. He had prayed and pondered over the situation and had admonished the mood and behaviour of the monks. All to no avail. One day he saw the rabbi walking in the woods and decided to ask his advice. He walked up behind the rabbi. The rabbi turned, and when the rabbi and the abbot faced one other, both began to weep. The sorrow of the situation affected them deeply. The abbot knew he did not have to explain the decline of the monastery. He merely asked, “Can you give me some direction so the monastery will thrive again?”
The rabbi said, “One of you is the Messiah.” Then he turned and continued to walk in the woods.
The abbot returned to the monastery. The monks had seen him talking to the rabbi who walks in the woods. They asked, “What did the rabbi say?”
“One of us is the Messiah,” the abbot said the words slowly, almost incredulously.
The monks began talking to each other. “One of us? Which one? Is it brother John? Or perhaps it is brother Andrew? Could it even be the abbot?”
Slowly things began to change at the monastery. The monks began to look for the Messiah in each other and listen to each other’s words for the Messiah’s voice.
Soon new, younger monks joined, and people returned to the monastery for spiritual solace and direction. (Eating with the Bridegroom, John Shea, Liturgical Press, 2005, p.32)
The story teases and tempts us to take it literally with the monks asking, “Who is it?” And witnesses to a new way of sensing the presence of the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed among us whom we may not know.
Advent, especially this Advent needs faithful witnesses among us like John, like the rabbi who walks in the woods, like a child who sees an emperor with no clothes, like Saint Lucia, and her passion for those who were poor, even to giving her life.
We all know what has been exposed by the pandemic, terrible disparities and prejudices that persist, the failings and frailties of our collective systems and individual selves, the brokenness of humanity and its impact on all creation and its creatures, declining physical and mental health, a universal grief and sadness at lesser and greater losses. And graciously, also, a deeper compassion and commitment to other’s wellbeing, a greater generosity in spirit and action, a clarity about priorities and values, greater space in our lives, in our consumption, in our place on the earth, for gratitude and thanksgiving, for God’s Spirit, to breathe. And do we hear John’s witness that among us is one whom we do not know, and we are not worthy to untie their shoes. And sense with gracious anticipation how that is true any and every moment in anyone we meet, including those closest to us, and among perfect strangers, especially those completely and delightfully different from me.
And in so witnessing that truth of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed among us, in others, to be faithful witnesses ourselves, knowing clearly who we are, and sensing and witnessing to Christ Jesus, the Messiah, God’s anointed among us and all creation, for the sake and saving of this world.
Poets may be the best witnesses. Like the prophet and witness, Isaiah, “…for God has clothed me with the garments of salvation, God has covered me with the robe of righteousness”. Like the Psalmist, “Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy… those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”
Or like Kim McKellar, daughter-in-law to the late Laura Baldwin of this community, “wind is only seen through the lens of what it touches, whitecap waves, trees bent low, a full sail, a bird that’s caught an upward draft, a toppled barn, we judge its power by its impact, by the path it leaves behind. like this virus, but also, like love.” (What the earth already knows, Kim McKellar, 2020, p.45) And finally, Mary Oliver;
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but still nothing is as shining as it should be for you. Under the sink, for example, is an uproar of mice—it is the season of their many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves and through the walls the squirrels have gnawed their ragged entrances—but it is the season when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow; what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox, the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know that really I am speaking to you whenever I say, as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in. (Thirst, Mary Oliver, Beacon Press, 2006, p.13)
We are witnesses to the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed among us, Let it be so, in all our relations. Amen.