As a child, I was always intrigued (and somewhat intimidated) by a large statue of St. John the Baptist in the coal region church my Nana attended. The prophet’s life-sized figure stood on a pedestal just inside the altar railing, and I longed to touch his robe to see if it was indeed made of camel’s hair as Scripture describes.
But what most captivated me about the statue was its earnest expression. John’s head was inclined toward the viewer, his eyes aflame with zeal, one arm extended toward the tabernacle in the sanctuary – his entire form urging one and all to “behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).
Those majestic words, repeated at every Mass, are preceded in Scripture by another declaration, one that takes on even deeper significance during the Advent season. When the Pharisees asked him “why … do you baptize if you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the Prophet?” (Jn 1:25), John not only clarified, but challenged: “I baptize with water, but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie” (Jn 1:26-27).
I wonder if any of the Pharisees, on hearing John’s reply, began looking at each other to find that one whom they did not recognize. And I wonder if we’re willing to do the same today, especially as we again prepare to welcome Christ more deeply into our lives.
The Lord indeed is everywhere – “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” (Jer 23:24) – and yet Emmanuel, “God with us,” is so hidden to minds and hearts blinded by (as St. Thomas Aquinas observed) the three usual suspects: the world, the flesh and the devil.
As Mary traversed the length of ancient Israel, bearing the veiled Christ to Elizabeth and, in due time, to Bethlehem, how many souls sensed that within the lowly maiden lay the Son of God? Under the worn fabric of her peasant robes was concealed the Redeemer, recognized only by the elderly Elizabeth, who hailed her kinswoman with delight (Lk 1:39-45), and by the preborn John himself, who “leaped for joy” in his mother’s womb (Lk 1:44). The society of the time did not attend to the prophetic cries of the elderly and the unborn; ours disregards them still.
In the silent years at Nazareth, how many villagers, watching Jesus grow from a child to a youth to a young man, discerned in him something more than ordinary, more than human? How many clasped his hand or gazed into his eyes or shared his laughter, unaware they communed with God himself?
How many witnessed his horrific Passion, unable to comprehend that the Almighty willed to suffer, to bleed, to be broken and even to die for sheer love of his children?
How many regard the Eucharist as just so much bread, a mere symbol of a long-ago act of sacrifice with no relevance for modern people who believe themselves beyond the need for – or hope of – a Savior?
How many stare blankly at the homeless person on the street, the migrant faces on newscasts, the alienated soul in our classroom or workplace, the struggling single parent, the other whose skin color or religion or sexual behaviors are so frighteningly different from our own – and never glimpse even a shadow of the suffering Christ?
This Advent, I ask St. John the Baptist to help me see that One among us I do not recognize – and whom I so desperately need to find and adore.
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com, host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast and author of the forthcoming book “Stations of the Cross for Sexual Abuse Survivors.” Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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