Advent III 2019, – SMC
As you go to your beds on Christmas Eve you’ll be filled with grace because you’ve been to the Crib Mass here at 4pm or the Vigil Mass at 6pm at the Good Shepherd or the 11.30pm Midnight Mass here. You may well be intently listening for this sound [bells sound] because you’ll be wanting to know when Father Christmas is coming.
The bells act as a warning that Santa is on his way, in much the same way that John the Baptist came to tell the world that Jesus was coming. His message, as we heard last Sunday, was: “One who is more powerful than me is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry His sandals,” (Matthew 3:11). Why did Jesus need this forerunner? Couldn’t God have just appeared and made enough noise and drama Himself without using human agency? As always with these sorts of questions, part of the answer is that God could have done whatever He wanted, He is not bound by a set of rules of how things need to be done, because He is the God of surprises! But then that means He must have wanted to have this guy proclaiming His arrival. Why?
Indeed, God had long ago revealed that He would send someone first before the Messiah. Hence we heard St Matthew in that Gospel quote from the prophet Malachi 3:1: “See, I am sending a messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His Temple.” There’s something dignified and beautiful about a messenger being sent to prepare the way. Think how silly it would be if Her Majesty the Queen had to announce herself at official engagements, “I say, would you mind standing up for me?” No, she has someone to shout out loud that she is coming.
We’re given some clues in the New Testament about who the Jews thought this herald might be. First and foremost, they thought it might Elijah. This is why Jesus asks the disciples at Caesarea Philippi, “Who do people say that I am?” and Peter responds, “Some say Elijah.” Elijah had healed and raised the dead. He’d encountered God in the still small voice of calm. Elijah had overcome people worshipping the wrong things by destroying the shrines of the priests of Baal. And finally, Elijah had been taken up to Heaven in a whirlwind to walk with God. And so on the Cross when our Lord cries out the Aramaic word for God, “Eloi” people stand there wondering if he is crying out for Elijah, the one who was to return.
But someone greater than Elijah came.
It’s not just Father Christmas’ sleigh that is announced using bells. The presence of Jesus Christ our Saviour is announced during the Mass using bells, that’s why they’re rung, to announce in a dignified and beautiful way that He is coming. First, at the start of Mass the sacristy bell is rung because the priest saying Mass comes in the place of Christ to offer the Body and Blood of Jesus to the Father for Christ’s Holy Church. And then during the Eucharistic Prayer the bells are rung as we beseech the Spirit to descend to transform the offerings of Bread and Wine; they’re rung again as the Lord’s Body and then His Blood is lifted up; and finally the bells are rung when the priest receives Holy Communion to show all is completed. Be sure to respond to the bells, my friends, with devotion to the Lord so they do not become empty symbols, clanging cymbals without love in them.
The people of our Lord’s day did not take heed though. Jesus asks in the Gospel we heard whom they went to see in the wilderness: A reed swaying the breeze? A man wearing fine clothes? The one would be so common it would not be worthwhile, the other would be in entirely the wrong place. Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 11: “John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, “he has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look a glutton and a drunkard.” As we come in to Church, my friends, we are to ask ourselves whom we have come to see. Our mates? The person selling raffle tickets? Our inner selves? No, but the Son of God.
We so often fail to recognise Jesus. We fail to recognise Him in the poor and the sick. We fail to recognise Him in the Bread and the Wine at the Mass. We fail to perceive His Spirit’s activity in the person sitting next to us. Even John the Baptist seems not to have recognised Jesus fully as he languished in prison in today’s Gospel, hence he sends a disciple to ask, “Are you the one?” Jesus has to instruct John the Baptist about what Jesus had come to do, to cleanse and empower, to raise to eternal life and to preach the Good News, to reward those who persevere in the faith. We too need that reminder.
So many pressures and expectations were placed on the Lord by those who waited for Him. James and John, those apostle brothers, thought His coming would mean they could punish those who wouldn’t listen, by sending down fire to destroy them. Peter thought being close to Christ would mean some spiritual rewards because he’d left everything. The centurion standing at the foot of the Cross had assumed Jesus was just not a criminal, His death just another anonymous death but, no, this man truly was innocent, He truly was the Son of God. They needed a fresh understanding of who Jesus is and what the priorities of His mission are. My brothers and sisters, pray for that for our own lives too. Pray for that for the mission of our Church as we seek to draw more souls to Christ.
All those others had forgotten that chief above all, the face of God in Jesus Christ is mercy, forgiveness, compassion, love, reconciliation. There’s lots of gift-giving this Christmas season. Gifts for people we love. Gifts for people we feel we ought to buy presents for. Give someone the gift of an experience of God’s mercy and forgiveness this Christmas by speaking to the homeless person whom everyone is ignoring. Show mercy by giving a Christmas Card inviting the odd person in your flats to Mass. Show compassion by sending a text to someone you’ve had a bit of an argument with. Show love during the Peace later on by shaking hands with someone you don’t know and look them in the eyes as you do so and commit to pray for that person later today.
Paul writes that we are to be ambassadors of Jesus Christ. Ambassadors are sent by countries to other countries to represent their national interest and when the ambassador arrives he or she is given a welcome that befits the country they’re from. That’s what we are to be too. Have a clear sense of what the kingdom ways of Jesus Christ are and live them out in a concrete way in all the different places you go. By taking those kingdom ways with us we invite others to recognise the authority of the One who is sovereign there. When the Sacrament is on the altar later on while people are quietly praying and singing hymns - please don’t talk - then spend time wondering what the Kingdom of Jesus looks like, what His mercy and compassion look like so they we might be given that fresh understanding and then announce it to others. Amen.