Immediately preceding this passage, Luke tells us that the word of God had come upon John the Baptist in the desert. John then began to proclaim the coming of the Lord: all flesh would at last see the salvation of God. John also proclaimed the necessity of turning from evil in repentance in order to prepare for the Lord’s coming.
The crowds ask, “What then should we do?” John replies that whoever has two cloaks or food should share with the person who has none. Tax collectors should not collect more than what is prescribed. Soldiers should not practice extortion or falsely accuse anyone, and they should be satisfied with their wages. The people are filled with expectation, wondering whether John might be the Messiah. John responds that one mightier than he will come, and will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John warns that when the Messiah comes, he will gather the wheat into his barn, and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.
We will celebrate with gratitude the Lord’s coming among us in the past on Christmas. Advent, however, is a time to affirm our faith that the Lord’s coming is also a present and future reality for which we must prepare. We too ask, “Teacher, what should we do?” The ordinary-ness of John’s reply to our question is surprising: share what you have with those who have nothing; do your job without cheating or telling lies; be satisfied with what you earn.
Someone asked Saint Philip Neri (who happened to be playing cards at the time) what he would do if he learned that his death was imminent. Philip Neri replied that he would continue playing cards. The best preparation for the Lord’s coming at any moment is to be doing what we ought to be doing. In the words of the old Shaker hymn: “’Tis a gift to be simple, ’Tis a gift to be free, ’Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.”
There is also a surprising ordinary-ness about the Lord’s coming—the divine presence does not force itself upon us with bells and whistles. When Jesus did come as Messiah, most people did not recognize him because he did not meet their expectations. Would God allow the Messiah to be defeated and disgraced by dying on a cross like a criminal? Advent thus is also a season to ask for the grace to be freed from false expectations about the Lord’s coming into our lives.
Perhaps the most ordinary and most surprising way of all that the Lord comes to us is in the reality of the Present Moment. Each moment becomes a sacrament of divine presence if we say in faith, “It is the Lord.” It is thus possible to bless the Lord at all times because every moment without exception is a grace of divine, self-giving love to us. The Lord is with us even in those tragic moments beyond understanding that seem to be without meaning. Life either has no meaning at all, or has total meaning because the Lord is present in all its moments.
Saint Paul tells us the wonderful life-implications of trust in the Lord’s presence at every moment in all the circumstance of our lives: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks…Have no anxiety at all…Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5:16-18 and Phil 4:6-7).
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.