President Obama and his family spent the Sunday — the third of the Advent liturgical season — focusing on the spiritual lessons of Chirstmas.
The Obama family began the day walking together through Washington, D.C.'s LaFayette Park to attend services at St. John's Episcopal Church, where the pastor, the Rev. Dr. Luis Leon, preached his homiily about the story of John the Baptist from the Gospel of St. John.
Listen to Leon's homily HERE.
"There are three things we learn right off the bat about John the Baptist," Leon said, "One of them, of course, is that he's sent by God. Two, he's not it. And the third, of course, is that he has a job and his job is to point to the light. I've always wondered what those folsk who came from Jersualem thought about John the Baptist after they asked those questions. they asked him the question, Who are you. His responses are all in the negative: No, no I'm not the Messiah. No I'm not the prophet. No, I'm not Elijah. Important question: Who are you? It's an imporant question for you and for me. One of my friends says there are only three critical questions in life. If you can answer them you're in good shape. Who are you? Where are you going? And who are all these other people gathered here?
"When they ask him who are you, they're trying to figure out who is this guy?" Leon said. "I'm sure his followers expereinced some disillusionment. Disillusionment is not all bad. Disillusionment literally means losing an illusion. And illusions are the things that get us into trouble. When we create an illusion about reality we get into trouble."
Leon recalled that the last time the lesson from the Gospel of St. John appeared in the lectionary cycle of the church was three years ago, not long after President Obama was elected. At the time, Leon said, after Sunday services in December 2008, he made some notes.
"I thought we were creating an illusion about what was happening in America ... and that we were going to be diillusioned somwehre down the pike," he said. "We all know what was happening. One of the great things about this country is that we peacefully elect and change administrations. We were rejoicing in that. I think America has a self-corrective bone and we had corrected part of our ills and our issues, we thought. But we were also casting our aspirations and projecting on somebody something that person was not. I was worried. I was worried the whole time we were expecting a Messiah to be our president ... and we were all going to be disillusioned because we were electing a president, not a Messiah. And the moment we realized that we were not electing a Messiah, we were going to be disillusioned. Like I said to you, it's not a bad thing. It's about losing an illusion.
"This is not a political diatribe, by the way," Leon said, as the congregation, well aware that the Obama's were in its midst, erupted in laughter. "I'm really stating the obvious. But we all have to recongnize that we were all at some period of illusion about what was going to happen. That everything was going to be fine. That everybody was going to be all right. We were going to live in perfect harmony. That the world was going to be safe and everything else. All we project on somebody else, all our illusions about what reality ought ot be and then we are disappointed.
"That happen about ourselves. We have illusions about ourselves. We have illusions about the church, we have illusions about our nation, and we have illusions about God. When we create those illusions, we always experience disillusion. And that's not bad. It's about losing the illusion," he said.
Leon went on to tell a story about visiting a congregant at Children's Hospital in Washington earlier last week and encountering a stranger - the motherh of a paitnet named Mary - who asked him to pray for her child. So he did. Another man, scruffy and seemingly in some kind of crisis, approached him in the hospital ward and asked if he was a priest. Leon thought the man was going to ask him for money. He started to make "no no no, all i need is Isaiah, having surgery right now.
"I thought to myself, why do we create these illusions? All I could do is hold the man's hand and say ya know, I'm not only going to pray for Isaiah, you and are going to pray for Isaiah together. Adn both you and I are going to lift Isaiah up in prayer. So lead me in your prayer.
"Disillusionment. It's about losing an illusion. It's not dealing with reality. And all of us do it. We do it about ourselves. We have illusions ... The best friend in society, the best friend you've got is the person who will risk your friendship... to help you disillusion yourself about the illusion of who you are. That's what John the Baptist is doing when he appears before us. He's inviting all of to consider how we prepare for this mystery, which we call the Christ Child, the incarnation, which we celebrate on December 25. It's inviting us to consider the illusions that all of us have created for ourselves about God."
Are we disillusioned because God is not a jini? Not a military general? Not a matchmaker? Not a cop? Not a employment headhunter? Leon asked.
"I think what John the Baptist is iniviting all of us to do is to prepare ouselves to be open to what is going to be born once more in our hearts on December 25. Not to go with the God we have created for ourselves, but the God who is. Opening our eyes to where God is in our society and in ourselves," he said. "Open to what God presents for us, not what we hope God would present for us."
We create idols, Leon said. Idols of idependence, family, love, patriotism. Those are all good things, of course, because no one creates idols out of good things for they "gladden our hearts," he said. We believe that if we hold onto them "we will have the 'full' life."
We should hold onto them because they are good, but we should "hold them lightly," he said, "and not let them take over all of our hearts so that once again our hearts may be prepared for the birht of that mystery we call the incarnation of God."
Leon concluded with an unlikely story about the time he went to see Saturday Night Live taped in New York City. Eddie Murphy came out before the show began to warm up the audience. He was so funny, so great that the audience started to believe he was the show. "We were all dancing and standing up and crying and cheering and everything else and ... Eddie Murphy says, 'Wait a minute. The show hasn't started yet. The show is yet to come."
"He's like John the Baptist," Leon said. "The show is yet to come and he invites all of us to cast away all of our illusions so that you and I can prepare the ground for the birth of the messiah."
Sunday evening, President Obama and his family attended the 30th annual "Christmas in Washington," hosted by Conan O'Brien where performers included several choirs, Jennifer Hudson, Cee Lo Green, the Band Perry and Canadian teen superstar Justin Bieber, a favorite of Sasha and Malia Obama. Bieber, 17, who has performed for the president several times in the last few years, sang "Under the Mistletoe," the title track off of his new album of the same name, and the Christmas classic, "Away in a Manger."
Before the concert, which was a charity fundraiser for the Children's National Medical Center, Bieber visited with patients in a local children's hopsital, as is his habit. Proceeds from his "Under the Mistletoe" album are going to charity, including those that support children's hospitals. The Obma family also visited children at the medical center, where they presented a basket of books and the president feigned struggling to lift the heavy basket, asking the children, dressed as elves, to help him place it beneath the Christmas tree.
At the concert, President Obama addressed the audience with words of spiritual comfort and counsel, saying:
It’s always such an extraordinary honor to be a part of this event because it benefits such a special place –- the Children’s National Medical Center. For so many children and their parents, the work that they do to save lives and improve care is nothing short of a miracle. And that’s fitting, because this is the season to celebrate miracles.
This is the season to celebrate the story of how, more than two thousand years ago, a child was born to two faithful travelers who could find rest only in a stable, among cattle and sheep. He was no ordinary child. He was the manifestation of God’s love. And every year we celebrate His birth because the story of Jesus Christ changed the world. For me, and for millions of Americans, His story has filled our hearts and inspired our lives. It moves us to love one another; to help and serve those less fortunate; to forgive; to draw close to our families; to be grateful for all that has been given to us; to keep faith; and to hold on to an enduring hope in humanity.
Service to others. Compassion to all. Treating others as we wish ourselves to be treated. Those values aren’t just at the center of Christianity; those are values that are shared by all faiths. So tonight let us all rededicate ourselves to each other. And, in that spirit, from my family to yours, happy holidays. Merry Christmas. God bless you all, and God bless the United States of America.
The "Christmas in Washington" concert airs Friday on TNT.
While he didn't perform his rendition of "Drummer Boy" at the Washington concert, he did last week at the Rockefeller tree lighting concert in New York City. Below you can watch young Mr. Bieber's take on the song from his charity Christmas album, in which he raps (along with Busta Rhymes):
If you wanna give, it's the time of year
JB on the beat, yeah yeah, I'm on the snare
It's crazy how some people say,
say they don't care when there's people on the street with no food,
it's not fair It's about time for you to act merrily it's about time for you to give to charity
Rarely do people even wanna help at all 'cause they warm by the fire, getting toys and their dolls
Not thinking there's a family out hungry and cold wishin' wishin' that they had somebody they could hold.
So I think some of you need to act bold
give a can to a drive, let's change the globe.
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. She is the author of several books, including The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers and her new release, BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @godgrrl.