Well, here we are halfway through Advent. There’s only a couple weeks to go until Christmas Day, and yet once again the gospel reading at Sunday Mass STILL does not talk about Jesus’ birth.
Seems kind of weird, doesn’t it? In secular society, we’ve been preparing for Christmas since the day after Halloween. However, on the church calendar the Christmas season doesn’t even begin until the Christmas Vigil Mass on the evening of December 24th, and then runs for the next 12 days. (Which is where we got that classic and painfully tedious song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”)
The season of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is the time we prepare for the coming of the Lord. But it’s very easy to focus only on the birth of Jesus—that brief moment in history when he was tiny and helpless—and ignore the majestic and powerful Jesus. This Jesus is quite a bit more awe inspiring (and let’s be honest, a bit more frightening) than the little baby in the manger.
The gospel reading for the weekend of December 12th and 13th continues to remind us that Jesus’ primary purpose in becoming human was not to present a cute little Nativity scene for us to focus on once a year, but instead to be the Redeemer and Judge of all the world.
John the Baptist was teaching and baptizing the crowds, and some began asking whether John was the long-awaited Messiah. If John was even the least bit prideful, he could have accepted their praise and adoration. But John would have none of that nonsense. He immediately said, “Whoa, time out, fellas. You got the wrong dude!” (Well, OK, maybe that’s a loose translation.)
John explained, “One mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.” Isn’t it refreshing for a change to see someone who is not blowing his own horn all the time? John knew his role was to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the one who pointed Him out to the crowds and then stepped aside into obscurity. John surely could have generated a lot more interest in himself—maybe even started a mega-church in California and bought himself a private jet—but he knew that was not what God called him to do.
In describing the Messiah who was soon to appear, John said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
In case you don’t quite understand the farming and harvesting symbolism, John was saying that Jesus will separate the righteous from the wicked, with the righteous being gathered into Heaven while the wicked are sent to a very hot and uncomfortable location (no, not Miami).
God does not wish for anyone to spend eternity in Hell. And He sent His only Son to save us from that fate. But God’s patience will not wait forever. At some point each person must decide whether to trust in Christ and be counted among the wheat (the righteous), or to ignore Him and be counted among the chaff (the wicked).
Jesus the infant in the manger is definitely less threatening than Jesus the righteous judge. But John the Baptist focused on Jesus the Judge, and the Church liturgy also focuses on Jesus the Judge, even though it’s less than two weeks until Christmas.
Yes, Jesus was a cute and helpless baby in a manger—for a brief time. But He is the holy and righteous judge for all eternity. Let’s never lose sight of that fact.