There’s a wonderful old story told of a monastery outside a small village that had fallen on hard times. With a community ageing and on the decline, the abbot decided to pay a visit to his friend, the rabbi in the village, to seek out his wisdom. The rabbi listened intently and with great compassion to the abbot’s woes. After a time of silence, the rabbi shared this advice.
“Gather the monks upon your return to the monastery, and tell them you have some words to share with them. When they are all listening, tell them: ‘The Messiah is in your midst.’ This will give them hope and renewed strength,” he said. The abbot agreed to this plan and did as the rabbi suggested. He gathered the monks together and said that after his visit with the rabbi he had some words of wisdom for us. Now the abbot was elderly and somewhat hard of hearing, so he heard something a little different than the rabbi had suggested. “The rabbi has told us that one of us is the Messiah!” he exclaimed.
The other monks received this message with not a little surprise and some skepticism. However, each monk thought to himself: “Is this possible? What if it really is true? After all, Jesus came in much the same unsuspecting manner.” They began to look at each other differently. Hedging their bets just in case one of them was the Messiah, they began to treat each other with more care and respect. Soon the monastery changed from a community that was dying, to a community full of life, love and mutual care.
The story ends with a glowing description of a flourishing community filled with anticipation at a special revelation and it once again became an attractive place for some to visit and some to stay.
The theme of Advent is well expressed in this little story. The third Sunday of Advent is titled Gaudete Sunday, that is, Rejoice Sunday or Sunday of Joyful Anticipation. Zephaniah challenges his community to “rejoice and exult with all your heart.” Why? Because “the Lord, your God, is in your midst.” The Psalm tells us to draw water joyfully from the font of grace. Paul repeats himself to emphasize the posture: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, REJOICE!” Why? Because “the Lord is near.”
This nearness of the Lord to those who are attentive seems to be a difficult message in the hustle and bustle of the preparations for Christmas. We find ourselves saying, “God might be near, but I still have six gifts to buy, a Christmas tree to decorate, two more staff parties, and I haven’t even found a free-range turkey for Christmas dinner!” Somehow, the spirit and purpose of the season can get lost in the din of activities and packed schedules.
In the Gospel, John the Baptist is calling for a conversion of the people. When they ask him, “Teacher what should we do?” they are wanting to know what needs changing in their lives. Sharing your clothes, your food, your material possessions with those who need them, and doing it with a joyful compassionate heart will help you recognize the presence of the Messiah.
I think of the desperate refugees, especially the faces of women and children, who are fleeing a war and seeking a safe place to live and raise their children. Their attraction to our country is that they know we live in peace, security and safety. These are things we often take for granted. Their faces are before us in the news every day. If our hearts turn cold against them, we might rationalize and say: “They are harbouring terrorists, so why let them into our country?” Or, as one journalist reported, “Give them guns and make them go back and fight their own war. Keep us out of it.”
It is to such as these that Jesus says: “If you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me” (Mt 25). And in today’s Gospel it is John the Baptist who reminds us that if we live in a position of plenty (i.e., we have two coats and only need one), we should be generous with what we have been given. But the coat that the poor are in need of is the extra coat of a country at peace. Would you not give anything to have your children grow up in security and safety?
As we prepare to sing Silent Night and celebrate the fact that the Lord is near, let us be filled with joy at his “closeness.” Let us be filled with joyful and generous hearts. During this season of great gifts, let us be challenged to be more open to the little ones in our world. For we can be grateful that we have been graced with a position and capacity to bring good news to others in need. Because, with the Messiah in our midst, you never know who among us is the “Messiah”!
Merry Christmas, my friends!
Williston is a retired Parish Life Director for the Diocese of Saskatoon and a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.