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Third Sunday of Advent
December 17, 2017


     “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the lowly, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord....” Over fifty years ago, when I was ordained a priest, I gave my family and friends a commemorative card with those words from today’s first reading from Isaiah printed on it, words that Jesus would one day apply to himself when he stood up to read in his hometown Synagogue at Nazareth.

     To tell you the truth, I’m a little embarrassed about that card now. What was I thinking when I chose it? It was one thing for Jesus to apply those words to himself, but me?  Any way you look at it, it was quite a stretch! Now, with the benefit of hindsight, if I were looking for something to have printed on a commemorative card, I’d be inclined to choose other words from today’s scriptures.  Maybe John the Baptist’s words from today’s gospel: “I am not the Messiah...!”

     Advent is a good time for getting things right, getting things straight, for “making straight the way of the Lord,” as John the Baptist put it. And a good place to start is getting straight who we are – and who we aren’t.  That might well mean letting go some of our pretensions – maybe setting aside the script we’ve been reading from if it was never really our script but someone else’s. Advent is a good time for some self-examination and maybe some self-correction. John the Baptist shows the way here.  He knew exactly who he was and who he wasn’t. “Are you the Christ?”  they asked him.  “Are you Elijah? Are you the Prophet?”  And in each case, he answered very clearly, “I am not!”

     You are probably familiar with the Renaissance altarpiece in the Cathedral chapel. In that beautiful painting, John the Baptist stands to one side pointing away from himself, pointing directly toward the Christ. You see, with John, it was never about him, it was always about the other, the Christ. “He must increase,” he would say; “I must decrease.” John knew who he was and who he wasn’t. He was not the light; he came to testify to the light. He wasn’t the Messiah, he wasn’t Elijah, and he wasn’t the Prophet.

     But John certainly was a prophet – a prophet in the line of the great Hebrew prophets who went before him. Like them, he was a voice in the wilderness, a voice to wake people up, to shake people up. John called people into a new awareness - challenged them to change, to get their lives in order.  That couldn’t have been an easy message for people to hear, and to hear it from this ragged, scary-looking, and scary sounding “voice in the wilderness” with his wild, finger-pointing ways – must have made it doubly difficult. But people did hear John’s message, and they listened as he gave witness to the one already among them whom they recognize, and they lined up to be baptized with his baptism of repentance.

     My friends, as in the Baptist’s time, so also in ours: there is one among us whom we don’t recognize – at least not always - the one whose sandal strap the Baptist felt unworthy to loosen.  Our great challenge - at Advent and always - is to come to recognize him, and that can be difficult.  It was difficult for the people John the Baptist preached to because they had very fixed ideas about who the Messiah, the Christ, would be, and what he would be like; and it can be difficult for us, too, because we, too, can have quite fixed ideas about the Christ - so fixed that we might well miss him.

     I know this is true for me.  Sometimes I see Christ only in the rear view mirror. I can overlook him when I’m looking right at him, recognize him only after the fact. It happens too often, I’m sorry to say. I think of the time, for instance, when I got stopped out there on Terry Avenue by a homeless fellow who I knew was going to hit me up for a handout. I was in a hurry (not unusual for me!), and he had a lot to say, so as quickly as I could, I cut to the chase and asked him if he needed some money. I’ll never forget his answer to me.  He looked me squarely in the eye and said, “Sure, I could use a few bucks, but I’d rather talk!”

     You see what I mean about seeing Christ in the rear view mirror.  He was right there in front of me but in my hurry I really missed him by buying him off with a few dollars.

     My friends, Advent is the time for preparing the way of the Lord. It’s the time for heeding the prophet’s call to conversion and change – both personal and societal. It’s also the time for coming to know better who we are and who Christ is.  And where Christ is.  We all look forward to welcoming him in the Christmas manger, and that will be heartwarming and wonderful, but it will be even more heartwarming and wonderful if we find him when he shows up unexpectedly, and welcome him where we least expect to find him! 

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

 

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Seattle, Washington  98104
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