Matthew chapter 11 introduces that section in the Gospel that reports how different people respond to Jesus. Some believe he is the messiah. But most have a difficult time recognizing and accepting him. Some think he is a powerful prophet. Still others reject him. Then there are those who oppose Jesus, accusing him of being in league with Satan.
Jesus gradually begins to reveal who he is, indirectly, by revealing who John the Baptist is. And who is John? He stands with the greatest, yet he is the least in the kingdom of heaven. He straddles the boundaries of the old and the new. John has one foot in the time of preparation. And he has the other foot in the kingdom. He will be the first to suffer the violence directed at the kingdom.
Who is John? He is a prophet like Elijah, bursting onto the wilderness horizon, and at the very last place Elijah was seen — the Jordan River. John, like Elijah, dressed in a camel hair garment, and ate locust and wild honey.
Centuries earlier, Malachi prophesied that Elijah would return, and when he did, it would be time to start looking for the messiah. Could John be the one Malachi spoke of? Jesus gives the answer. "…if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah." And if that is true, the Jesus must be…
But let’s be honest. John isn’t the most pleasant person to be with. He has a rough, disheveled appearance with his wild hair blowing in the wind, his scraggly beard littered with his last meal, grasshopper crumbs. And that camel hair he wears smells rather gamey, to say the least. John is strange, austere, prickly as cactus. Would anyone want to invite him to their Christmas dinner? Would anyone want him standing next to the eggnog? Santa is jollier, Rudolph cheerier.
And yet, God chose John as his messenger to announce the coming of the messiah, to shock us into paying attention when we’d rather look the other way. But if we refuse to accept him, we may fail to recognize the one he is pointing to. Advent is the time of waiting in anticipation, in preparation so that we will recognize and welcome the messiah into our lives. If we are willing to accept it, Elijah has returned. The messiah cannot be far off. Will we recongize him?
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.