Standing unknown among you

Published on 08 Dec 2020

He not only declared but he declared quite openly [1]. 

John the Baptist responds candidly to those who ask him: who are you? [2]   He knows who he is and he understands the work that he is doing. He came as a witness, as a witness to speak for the light, so that everyone might believe through him [3].   John became a disciple while still in his mother’s womb [4].  As an adult, he thought of himself as a voice that cries in the wilderness: make a straight way for the Lord [5].  John fulfils his prophetic mission with verve. We also have the mission of preparing people to receive Christ.  The Lord himself does the lion’s share of the work.  He offers himself, his teaching and his way to the Father to everyone.  There is plenty of help for our work.  God has called you and he will not fail you [6].  The task of preparing the way and of testifying to the redeemer is very important. He has sent me to bring good news [7].  John personally was exceptionally alert to the presence of Jesus.  He threw himself into educating his listeners towards their own awareness of that presence. There stands among you, unknown to you, the one who is coming after me [8].   The saviour is present among us but can be overlooked or missed. John wants to help everyone to become as receptive as possible to the Lord.  He draws attention, sometimes forcefully, sometimes more obliquely, to One whom none of us as yet know well enough.  What is presently unknown will become clear as we prepare in the right way. May you all be kept safe and blameless, spirit, soul and body, for the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ [9].  Our Advent cultivation of receptivity, in ourselves and, as best we can, in others is that inescapable making ready for the Lord.

In Advent, we joyfully prepare to acknowledge as fully as possible our faith in a Christ whom, at first, we do not properly understand.   He stands among us unknown, yet, already, we are glad [10]. I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God [11].  In our delight itself there is a lived knowledge of the One we seek to welcome and to know well.  The effective preparation and the exultant discovery are achieved by following the recommendations of John the Baptist. We repent, we seek forgiveness and we allow our lives to be amended to make them fit to receive salvation. May the God of peace make you perfect and holy [12]. In doing all this we are becoming like Christ.  We are preparing for the Lord by becoming people who resemble him.  John the Baptist takes pains to explain that he is not his master.  He does this partly to avoid a simple mistake about the One who is already present but its not yet recognised and honoured.  John is also teaching us that true followers of Jesus by resembling him may be taken for him. The mistake has to be corrected: John does so forcefully: I am not the Christ [13].  We disciples always clear up this confusion.  We do so with honesty and humility but also with courage.  We want to be like him and we hope that others will see him in us.  The unknown One seeks to be known well and to be imitated.   We who are certainly not the saviour are nevertheless called to be like him.  Virtuously disguised as him, we are to be wrapped in the cloak of integrity [14].  Thus transformed, we may strike people differently. For as the earth makes fresh things grow, as a garden makes seeds spring up, so will the Lord make integrity and praise spring up in the sight of the nations [15].   We ourselves can hardly fail to be impressed by what the One, who stands among many who do not know him, has done for us.  We allow ourselves to be changed as we watch and wait for one about whom so many have been for so long been mistaken.  This change could feel like diminishment.  He must increase, I must decrease [16].  As we become more like Christ, and more fully ourselves, we notice what is decreasing, what is becoming less significant to us. Hold on to what is good and avoid every kind of evil [17]. By finding out who and what are not of the Lord we become more receptive to who he truly is and how he actually approaches us.  Long before we realised who he is, he was doing great things in our life. The almighty works marvels for me, holy is his name [18].

The Blessed Virgin Mary speaks of the advent of her son in a self-effacing way.  He looks on her servant in her nothingness [19].   John has the same attitude: I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap [20].  Our Lady, Saint John the Baptist and the other saints, who are so attentive to the One who stands among you unknown, help us not only to see what is front of our noses but also to stretch out purposefully towards that which up until now has felt beyond our reach.  The holy ones do not rebuke our earlier lack of receptivity but rather rejoice at our dawning understanding.  He fills the starving with good things [21].  Once we scarcely knew we were hungry, now we ask confidently for what we need.  We do so humbly but also with an acute awareness of what has long been lacking.  He sends the rich away empty [22].  We never thought of ourselves as rich, but, ruefully, we admit that for a long time we were content to go away empty.  Mary, John and the whole company of saints help us to wake up to something we have been missing. They point to Christ.  We are learning to point him out also.  Present among us already is our saviour, almost unknown. We are coming to him and to make him known.  John the Baptist sang of his coming and proclaimed his presence when he came [23].  To this presence, we have, up until now, not been fully alert.  Our new alertness is also gladness. My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my saviour [24].

Homily by Fr Peter Gallagher SJ 

[1]              John 1.20

[2]              John 1.19

[3]              John 1.7

[4]              Luke 1.41

[5]              John 1.23 and Isaiah 40.3

[6]              1 Thessalonians 5.24

[7]              Isaiah 61.1

[8]              John 1.26-27

[9]              1 Thessalonians 5.23

[10]            the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, celebrates this anticipatory joy

[11]            Isaiah 61.10

[12]            1 Thessalonians 5.23

[13]            John 1.20

[14]            Isaiah 61.10

[15]            Isaiah 61.11

[16]            John 3.30

[17]            1 Thessalonians 5.21-22

[18]            Luke 1.49

[19]            Luke 1.48

[20]            John 1.27

[21]            Luke 1.53

[22]            Luke 1.53

[23]            Roman Missal, Second Advent Preface

[24]            Luke 1.46-47