If you stand by the Jordan where John was baptizing, you can look across the river toward Jerusalem and see them coming! The crowds, Luke speaks of, truly flocked out of Jerusalem to experience this strange prophet John. He was the celebrity of his day, the true rock star of his own time. He captivated them, challenged them and they would ask: What should we do? Teacher, what should we do? And what is it we should do? Three times what should we do? Teach us! Tell us! And John did. He told them what they had to do to make up for their sins, change their ways, repent from all your evil deeds.
John, the celebrity of his day caused people to wonder and ask him: Who are you? Are you the Messiah? Are you the Christ? John was not seduced by the admiration of the crowds. He spoke clearly. He was the forerunner, just preparing the way. When HE comes, I am unworthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. I am not the ONE but he is coming.
Fast forward to us living here in the 21st century: American Catholics. As Americans we are used to measuring people by what they do! We so often measure one another by what we have accomplished, what we have done! And please God we have good answers. Just as the crowd asked John what they should do for the same reason, so we too, by and large, want to do the right thing Yes, we know we slip. Yes, we admit that we sin. But deep down we all want to do the right thing. And God knows that and God sees that. And to do the right thing but even more, to live according to his plan: to keep the commandments, but even more: live by the Sermon on the Mount, love God and neighbor.
For us too, as we try to DO the right things, we encounter who we are and who we want to be. Who are we? What are we like? How do we want people see us? For DOING leads naturally to asking not WHAT but WHO! It leads to questions of character, of personality, of how we define ourselves and who we want to be before God and one another.
Today I would like to suggest that we are here to express who we are by re-affirming the identity which is ours, an identity that is God’s gift to us. There are two aspects of it. The first is perennial and constant. Who we are cannot be answered correctly apart from the fact that we have been embraced and transformed by the One John the Baptist announced was coming. He is of course the Son of God made man, Jesus the Christ. John predicted his coming. We stand on the other side of that prediction. We have been washed in the Jordan of the baptismal font. We know who we are. We are sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of the one who humbled himself to be born of a woman, Jesus the Christ. When Mary gave her human nature to the Son of God, she bridged the gap between heaven and earth. She became the link that allowed Him to become one with us so that we could become one with Him.
This is what Christmas is about. This is what we are preparing for: to welcome once again into our lives the One who is. He offers us our identity, opens up to us the true meaning of our lives and gives us our ultimate destiny. Standing on this side of the Jordan, we know John was right. We have been baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire, baptized into his death and resurrection to be the new creation, the new People of God, the Body of Christ! He is the constant in our lives. And he shows us who we are and how we can image him by our lives, by our character, by our whole way of living.
Zephaniah is right: Seeing you, God rejoices over you. God is in your midst. You have no further misfortune to fear. He will rejoice over you with gladness and renew you in his love. He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals!
And that brings us to the second element which is not perennial but is a very specific reality: The Jubilee Year of Mercy from today to the next Feast of Christ the King. The Holy Year Jubilee of Mercy is where who we are comes together with what we do. Because we ARE in Christ Jesus, his life in us, the strength of His Spirit in us assists us into doing what God wants us to do: be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful.
As God rejoices us so we should rejoice in Him. Paul says it all. He explains why we are joyful: Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: Rejoice! The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all. We are his beloved, his sons and daughters. We are in Him because he is in us, guiding us, strengthening us, giving every reason and every grace to live in that joy because we already belong to Him. The Year of Mercy calls us first to acknowledge with great gratitude and great happiness how immense and limitless is the merciful love of God. He never lets us out of his sight. He always wants to lift us up by his forgiveness, his love, the very life he has given us through His Son. And because we are recipients of that mercy, he does call us who are his beloved to learn from that Son how we can be merciful to one another. We are to forgive one another; help one another, spread the Joy of the Gospel to all who are far and all who are near. Because we are who we are, we seek to do what He calls us to do: we seek to imitate his Son who so loved the world that he gave up his life. This year inspired by God’s merciful love. we are on a pilgrimage of mercy reaching out to others who are in need, helping those we may have hurt, consoling those who need to be embraced, bringing ourselves to those we may have wrongly ignored or rejected or left abandoned. In short, the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy!
What a tremendous gift the Church receives today to live through the coming year! What joy is ours because we live in the love of the One who first loved us! This year we will travel far together as pilgrims, carrying Christ’s love in our hearts with joy and offering the Father’s love to others, a love that then rejoices the hearts of all who seek him.
May the song we have song be on our lips and in our hearts this Year of Mercy: cry out with joy and gladness; for among you is the great and holy one of Israel.