Saturday of the 2nd Week of Advent
Sirach48:1-4, 9-11; Luke 3:6; Matthew 17:9a, 10-13
I came across a product I needed at the store and grabbed it. I paid no attention to the label, but when I got home, wondered how I missed it. It was large, bright red, and warned in bold letters: “Failure! This product is only effective if you read the instructions thoroughly. Failure to do so will result in you moaning and groaning that the product doesn’t work and generally being a pain in the bottom. Make a positive change in your life will you, and read the instructions.” The thing is, I didn’t read them. I started using the product, complained to myself that it wasn’t working right, then realized: Oh yeah… the LABEL. Reading the instructions fixed the problem.
If our Lord was the product, John the Baptist was certainly the big, red label. How could you miss him? Wearing camel hair, baptizing, preaching, eating locusts… not the kind of man you’re going to miss. As we know, they didn’t; to the contrary, people went out in droves. Yet, our Lord refers to John as Elijah who had come but was not recognized (Matthew 17:12). How could a prophet who was so clearly seen and heard go unrecognized, and what does that tell us about ourselves? A couple of things, I think.
For one thing, it says that appearances matter; maybe too much for our own good. Like I did with the label, people may have focused on John’s appearance rather than his message; were amused, offended, or entertained, where they were supposed to be challenged and enlightened. Or, perhaps John didn’t conform to their expectations of what a prophet should look like. The last anyone had seen him, Elijah was riding a fiery chariot to heaven (Sirach 48:9). John, standing in the river, baptizing, preaching, and snacking on locusts – this was how the awesome prophet Elijah returned?
It’s not all that different in our own time. We sometimes judge our liturgies – their words or music – by how much they divert or entertain us, rather than how much they challenge us or help us to contemplate the divine mysteries. We also tend to ignore or discount anyone or anything that doesn’t fit our preconceived notions about what divine revelation is “supposed” to look like. We do well to remember that God often reveals himself in ways we least expect. Consider: Was it the earthquake, fire, or strong, driving wind that spoke to Elijah, or the still, small voice? Was it the son of Herod or the Son of Mary who opened the gates of Heaven?
A second problem happens when we get the message but find it hard to accept. Herod is a good example. Scripture says that John both intrigued and troubled him (Mark 6:20); the truth drew him in, but it also made him look at himself in a way he didn’t want to. In the end, his pride won out; it was easier to silence the voice than to heed it. Again, are we all that different? The truths of Scripture and the teachings of the Church speak to us, but they can also cut right to the heart and make us very uncomfortable. It’s tempting to want to take those truths and, like Herod with John, do to them whatever we please.
Therein lies the real problem, as Jesus points out in the gospel: What we do to the prophets, we do to him. It is true, as the acclamation said, that all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Luke 3:6), but it is also true that seeing and recognizing are two very different things. Every time we see revelation only where and how we want to see it, we limit the ability of the Holy Spirit to work within us, for it is He who helps us recognize the truth about God and ourselves. That is the ultimate failure. Eternal life is the product, God has written the way to it through his Church, and prophets like John the Baptist are the label, telling us as loudly and as clearly as they can: Make a positive change in your life, will you, and read the instructions.