"And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come."
The message of the good news of the coming of the Messiah doesn’t begin with angels in the heavens or shepherds in the fields. It doesn’t begin in a manger.
For the Church, it always begins with a messenger who looks like a caveman, wears camel hair, has a scraggly beard, long wild hair, and eyes like blue volts.
The messenger is John the Baptist, predicted by Isaiah, sent by God, and dressed like Elijah.
Like an uninvited guest, John always stands in the way of Christmas. He doesn’t let us sing those cheerful jingle bells or angels we have heard on high carols. Not yet.
Instead, he bursts onto the wilderness scene crying out: "Get ready. Repent.
But let’s be honest. Who of us wants to go out into the wilderness? Who wants to hear that message? After all, the wilderness can be hazardous: a place where we encounter temptations, our demons; where we encounter even ourselves.
But if we remain truly open, admitting our vulnerabilities, taking off the mask – if we can do that, then we can even encounter God.
Then, we will understand that the wilderness can be a place of purification and preparation. It can be a place where we repent, and turn our lives around because we’ve been going in the wrong direction. It’s can be a place where we finally hear God calling us to himself.
There is no other way to prepare for the coming of the Lord.
We can, of course, take a shortcut, avoid that unpleasant prophet and leapfrog right into Christmas. But if we do, our celebration will be shallow, with no more permanence than the crumpled gift-wrapping paper that fills the trashcan.
Or, we can go into the wilderness to listen and heed the message of that strange prophet who looks like a caveman and smells like a camel.
If we are willing to accept it, he is Elijah.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.