By Benedict Augustine
“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.”
In the enthusiasm of Christmas, or some other religious holy day, we seldom consider preparing our souls for Christ. Most theology, mostly Protestant, assumes that Jesus will meet us where we are, and that we simply wait for him to change us. Because all of us need help overcoming our addictions, our egos, our ignorance, we come to the conclusion that we are simply helpless; but needing help is not always the same as being helpless.
All humanity needs Christ, and through His Church, Christ treats these many needs. Because these needs are primarily spiritual, relating to the heart, Christ and His Church have spiritual treatments that work with the heart of a person. We call these treatments the sacraments. They serve as a visible signs of Christ’s invisible grace. The water of baptism signifies the living water of grace; the bread and wine of communion signify the body and blood of Jesus; the words exchanged in Confession signify the spiritual grace exchanged between the penitent and Jesus.
Jesus established the Church to administer the sacraments. The sacraments are effective insofar as the receiver approaches them with humility andfaith. In other words, a person must “prepare [Jesus’] way” in their heart to allow Jesus to work a change, or else the sign will remain only a physical sign, not a spiritual reality. Christ instituted the sacraments as to initiate a process of many moments, not as a magic moment of the spirit. He does not barge into a person’s soul; he awaits welcome and the appropriate preparation from a person. Therefore, one cannot simply wait helplessly for Christ’s arrival, but must set to work on building a house for him, like Nathan commands David to do.
John the Baptist proves this point. Just as individual Christians prepare the way for Jesus in their souls, John prepares the way for Jesus in the whole community of believers. He embodies this process of repentance by leaving the corrupt city and living in the wilderness in the effort to purify and build Jesus’ future Church. Pope Benedict XVI notes that John, as the final and greatest prophet, acts as the voice for Jesus who is the Word. As the voice passes away, the Word remains in the hearts of the speaker and, more importantly, the listeners. The Church continues this activity of John the Baptist with priests who, like John, serve as the voice for Christ, the Word.
The Incarnation of Jesus, Christmas, with its elaborate narrative filled with twists and important contextual information, with the 46 books of the Old Testament prefiguring the event, suggests anything but simplicity. God does not work into history directly, but rather indirectly and gently to respect man’s free will. People might demand a simple solution to the complex problem of one’s own humanity, but this simplicity too often equates to reduction of the person while Christ demands the whole person with all its complexities. The Church works on this premise, offering to build up the people’s souls from the ground up for all time, not just adding an ornament for a season. It takes the long view, both with the people, and with its own history. It follows the pattern set out by Jesus to sidestep easy solution that work only partially and embrace the difficult but effective solution that encompasses all life from birth (Baptism) to death (Last Rites).
And what is the Church exactly? The readings today suggest three different things: a building and rituals(the temple of David), the community (John’s mission as a prophet), and the individual heart (John’s preaching). We should keep these three meanings present in our minds as we celebrate Christmas tomorrow. Celebration calls for attending Mass and receiving communion, joining in prayer and love with the people around us, and opening our hearts for Jesus. All these activities depend on the other; to remove one, whether it be the structure, other people, or our own active participation, ultimately casts out Christ into manger again and leaves us in the dark.
Today, this Christmas Eve, and for all time, we must heed the call of John and open our houses to the Holy Family so that they may do the same for us when we join them in Eternity. Like John, let us leave the corruption of consumerism and skepticism of the world behind us, and join Jesus and the shepherds in the wilderness to build our souls for heaven.