In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading speaks of the time just before Jesus came onto the scene of salvation history. There are two great figures of this brief period, as the Old Testament closes and the New Testament opens. These two great figures are Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and St. John the Baptist. Today we hear about the ministry of John the Baptist.
John is held before our attention in the liturgy today because the Lord is about to come among us liturgically, on the feast of his nativity (Christmas), just as he was about to come among the people of the 1stcentury, to whom John was speaking. Thus the choice of this Gospel reading is meant to shake things up temporally, to suggest to us that there is a mystical analogue between John’s situation and our own. And this analogue is not merely a liturgical fact, because we are again waiting for Christ to manifest himself in our world, to come again in glory.
The first epistle of John says, “Children, it is the last hour.” But, as we heard today, “among you stands one whom you do not know.” We should be standing in our own world today like new John-the-Baptists, voices crying in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” because he is coming soon, as Scripture bears witness.
He is coming to us at Christmas, and he is among us even now, though perhaps he stands yet “as one whom you do not know.” But he is coming again with power and great glory to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire. And whether he comes again today, or tomorrow, or in another two thousand years, he is in fact coming soon, for this is “the last hour,” the final chapter of the world’s history and the fulfillment of time. And his second advent will contrast starkly with the humility and abnegation of the manger, as well as with the anonymity with which he stands among us even now. The book of Revelation says: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen,” (Rev. 1.7).
So now our mission is to proclaim the mystery of faith: to “remember his death… proclaim his resurrection…[and] await his coming in glory.” And as we await his coming in glory, today’s Gospel gives us the example of John the Baptist, whose vocation likewise was to await the coming of the Lord, who stood among God’s people then as one they did not know. In order to consider how John the Baptist’s vocation can illuminate our own, we might first consider why it is that the Lord stands among us unknown. What is it that obscures our vision? What makes him unrecognizable?
The Lord stands among us as one we do not know, because our vision is obscured by the twofold and interrelated realities of the world, with its power structures and its priorities, and our sins. (And, by the way, what better way is there to prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas, than by making your confession?) Every year at Christmas, Christians and men of good will complain about the materialism of our culture, and how it corrupts the “true meaning of Christmas.” But if you are at all like me, every year you nevertheless, to some extent, buy into that materialism. More than either receiving or giving gifts, Christmas has become a time to BUY gifts. Every year I look around my house at Christmas and see things I bought LAST year at Christmas, that I meant to give as gifts but didn’t, and I am reminded of this.
Our world lives and breathes by the flow of money. Who could forget the suggestion, in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the suggestion that the citizens of our nation should help out by going shopping? Or the wisdom of our financial caste two or three years ago that if money did not change hands rapidly, and on a huge scale, Europe might well sink into the ocean, and the world as we know it might come to an end. Money can save us, we are told; and money can destroy us. It never ceases to amaze me how the media speaks of “The Markets” as though they were Olympian gods, volatile and capricious, needing to be placated by good news about employment numbers – behind which, of course, there is nothing other than human sacrifice, the lives of millions offered up, nine to five, Monday through Friday each week, all to make The Markets happy, to keep them from punishing us. The first book of the Kings says that in order to prevent the people of Israel from returning to the House of David, Jeroboam “made two calves of gold,” and showed them to the people, and said, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt,” (1 Kings 12.28).
“Among you stands one whom you do not know.” Our job is to become little John-the-Baptists, to be voices crying in this American wilderness of falsehood, idolatry, and materialism, making the Lord known here, making straight what has become crooked, and building up what has been cast down. Concretely, this means that we must affirm and inhabit the truth, standing as witnesses against our world’s crookednesses and perversions. And this must mean, for each of us, reacquainting ourselves with Jesus. “Among you stands one whom you do not know.” In order to make him known, to bear witness to the justice and peace and truth that he embodies, each of us must first get to know HIM.
We know the straight way – what I often call the “economy of salvation” – set forth in the Gospel, and kept by the Catholic Church – the way of repentance and prayer, the way of the sacraments, the way of ascetical struggle, of lifelong fidelity in marriage, the way of selflessness and generosity, the way that affirms life and the dignity of the human person at every stage of development from conception to natural death, the way of solicitude for the poor and weak, for immigrants, and even criminals. The “way of the Lord” commended by John the Baptist has been manifest to us, and now we must walk in it, and proclaim it to others.
The way of the world runs counter to the way of the Lord, and we have to purge our consciousness of its influence. The Greek word for “repentance” is “metanoia” – and it means a transformation of one’s mind. It is not enough to be well-behaved, but our whole way of thinking must be turned around and our perspective reoriented; our priorities have to be reversed in order for us to become agents of the world’s renewal and the salvation of souls. This is the work to which the Lord calls each of us, and to which he calls every Christian. And it is of such workers that the prophet Isaiah speaks in today’s OT reading: “they [will] be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”
The world’s future is written, and it is a future of deliverance from every corruption, from loneliness, sickness, brokenness of every sort, and from death itself. This is the work that Jesus has already set loose within the world by being born into poverty, by dying and rising again; and it is the work to which each of us is called in virtue of our having been baptized into his death and resurrection.
“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22.20).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.