There is a question, I think, that most of us have to ask ourselves at some stage in life and how we answer it shapes our lives. It is: “Is Jesus Christ who He says He is?” Most people respond with either Yes, He is, or No, he is not. However, for some of us there is a third answer: ‘I’m not sure …’ and those of us in this position go through life with a foot in each of the camps of belief and unbelief.
Today’s Gospel text reveals that the great John the Baptist was not so sure about Jesus either. After he had been imprisoned, John sent some of his followers to question Jesus because he, Jesus, was not meeting their expectations of how the Messiah should behave.
John had expected a no-nonsense judge who would condemn and punish badly behaving people. By contrast, Jesus was emphasizing the merciful and healing nature of God. Thus Jesus did not fit the unsparing role the Baptist envisaged. In reply to John’s followers, Jesus explained that he was attuned to a different expectation of the Messiah in the Bible, and, specifically, to the role of the Messiah promised by the Prophet Isaiah (as outlined in the First Reading). Jesus had come not to condemn but to save, to bring forgiveness and healing to broken people and those who, for one reason or another, had made a mess of their lives. Forgiveness, not condemnation, he taught, are the hallmarks of God’s nature (also celebrated in today’s Responsorial Psalm).
To the scandal of many, the ministry of Jesus was one of befriending outcasts and supporting sick, broken, abused and neglected people. He so identified with them that he said that every time we help someone who is hungry, sick, in prison, a victim of injustice or down on their luck, we actually are helping him.
The Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” – which we sing at the end of Mass – tells a story about a king going out on the 26th December (St Stephen’s Day) in harsh winter weather and coming upon a poor peasant in search of bits of wood to light a fire in his freezing home. With his servant in tow, the king treks through the snow with food and wine for the peasant. When the servant is about to give up the struggle against the cold weather, the king tells him to continue by following in his, the king’s, footprints, step for step, through the deep snow. [The legend is based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935). (source: Wikipedia)]
If we accept that Jesus is who he claims to be, he asks that we follow in his footprints, step by step, helping the very people he identified with – the sick, the lonely, the hungry, people in prison, victims of injustice or anyone in difficulty or in need.
As we now enter the two darkest weeks of the year, you and I are able to cheer ourselves with Christmas lights, decorations and comforting festive music. Most of us are able to stock up with ample seasonal food and drink for celebrations with family and friends. And we have the good – or reasonable – health to do so. How lucky and privileged we are to have all these wonderful things and to be spared from the hunger, misfortune and deprivation suffered by millions of others around the world.
Mindful of our good fortune, perhaps we might take these words of Pope Francis to heart:
As I meet, or lend an ear to those who are sick, to the migrants who face terrible hardships in search of a brighter future, to prison inmates who carry a hell of pain inside their hearts, and to those, many of them young, who cannot find a job, I often find myself wondering: “Why them and not me?” I, myself, was born in a family of migrants; my father, my grandparents, like many other Italians, left for Argentina and met the fate of those who are left with nothing. I could have very well ended up among today’s “discarded” people. And that’s why I always ask myself, deep in my heart: “Why them and not me?” (Pope Francis, TED Talk, April 2017)
Indeed, we might all ask: ‘why them and not me?’
So, perhaps, this Christmas we might redouble our efforts to be a Good King Wenceslaus?
Holy Name, Jesmond
15 December 2019