In the Name...
There's a story told of the day when St. Peter and Jesus popped down to earth to play some golf, and, as they were going along, Jesus was faced with a difficult shot across a water obstacle. Gauging the situation, he said, "Tiger Woods used a nine-iron for this and it went right in the hole." So, he took the club and hit the ball. It arched beautifully and landed right in the middle of the water. Undeterred, he walked out across the water, retrieved the ball, again said, "I know Tiger Woods used his nine-iron" and swung. The ball arched beautifully and, again, landed right in the middle of the water. A bystander, watching Jesus walk back across the water, went up to Peter and said, "Wow! Does that guy think he's Jesus?" "No.", Peter replied, "He is Jesus. He thinks he's Tiger Woods."
Who do you think you are? That's what this morning's Gospel dialogue is all about. The reputation of John the Baptist has grown to the point that the Sanhedrin send out a fact-finding mission to confront him with that very question, "Who are you?" And the answer they get does nothing to put their minds at ease.
John is shaking up things. He's leading what amounts to a full blown religious revival. He asks people to publicly confess their sins in a washing ceremony to symbolize a new attitude to life, and people are flocking to him in droves. But, he says, he is not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor a great prophet like Isaiah. He is a voice announcing that God is near, entreating us to cleanse ourselves and prepare for the One who is greater than he. One, whom he won't name. All he will say is that the One is already among you and you do not recognize him.
The Jews of Jesus' time could not recognize him as the Messiah because they all had grand ideas on what their Messiah would be like. Some said the Messiah would be a mighty war-chief leading ever-victorious armies - the son of an important, noble family. Others said he would be an avenging angel who would descend from the heavens in majesty and destroy all of Israel's enemies with lightning. So, when Jesus showed up, born of a woman like everybody else, and in obscure family circumstances, they could not recognize him. He was too ordinary, too unimpressive.
Advent is a time we prepare for the coming of the Lord, his coming to us sacramentally at Christmas, his coming to us individually at the end of our lives, and his coming to us collectively at the end of time. But, suppose we were told that the Christ for whom we are waiting is already here. What difference would that make to us?
Once upon a time, a monastery was going through a crisis. Several monks had died, some had left, no new candidates joined them, and people were no longer coming for retreats and spiritual counsel as they had in former times. The few monks who remained were becoming old, depressed, and rancorous in their relationships with one another. Then, the abbot heard about a holy man, a hermit, living alone far out in the woods and decided to consult him. He went and told the hermit how the community had dwindled and was now a shadow of its former self; of how the spirit of the community was increasingly bitter. The hermit listened thoughtfully, went away to pray, and, when he came back, revealed to the abbot that he had learned a secret. One of the monks, now living in his monastery, was actually Christ in disguise, but living in such a way that no one could recognize him.
The abbot returned, called a chapter meeting, and recounted what the holy hermit had told him. The monks looked at each other in disbelief. Surely not. None of them could be the Christ. But, Brother Mark, as he considered his laziness, thought to himself that it might be Brother Joseph who prays all the time. And, Brother Joseph, as he considered his bad temper, thought it might be Brother Mark who was always trying to make peace. And so forth. And the more each one thought about it, each one of them became convinced that it could be any one of the others.
And from that day the monks began to treat each other with greater respect and humility. Their common life became more brotherly and their prayer life more fervent. People began to take notice of the new spirit and came back for retreats and spiritual direction. Candidates began to offer themselves and the monastery grew in numbers as the monks grew in zeal and holiness. All this because they rediscovered the truth they had forgotten that each one us should imitate Christ and be a Christ to others.
The monks had forgotten. But, why was that? What had happened to them? They had let the cares and troubles of the world push out of their lives the one thing necessary to behaving like, and recognizing, Christ.
St. Paul summed it up in today's lesson, "Rejoice always."
Joy. Not the transitory happiness or good feelings we often confuse with it, but, the true joy which St. Paul says is to be found in knowing Christ Jesus. Joy allows us to recognize Christ in others and when we have joy, others recognize Christ in us.
We live in times when many people feel a distinct lack of joy. As with the monks, the cares and concerns of the world threaten to push joy out of their lives. Nevertheless, as St. Paul says, we must rejoice, pray, and give thanks, not to deny what's going on or what troubles us, but, to confront it.
For, in calling us to joy, St. Paul is really asking us to take care of the spiritual part of our lives. Most people spend more time and money caring for the material part of their lives and you can see that reflected in the ways they prepare for Christmas. More effort is taken to decorate homes than think about our lives decorate our heavenly home. More concern is spent with the gifts for family and friends than with the gift of ourselves, our souls, and bodies, which we should give to God.
Advent calls us to care for our souls so that we might rejoice not only in the Christmas season but, in all seasons, so that we might experience Christ's peace and wholeness which is his will for our lives.
With joy, we have a better sense of who we really are, but, more importantly, a better sense of who everybody else just might be. And that is - holy; holy in One.
In the Name...