Among you stands one whom you do not know

Author: 
Fr Alec
Date: 
Sunday, December 14, 2014 - 9:30am


 

I am sometimes asked why it is important that the priest should wear fine robes and vestments at the front of church. It’s a fair question, when one considers that we are servants of a Lord who did not go about in extravagant apparel, who poured scorn on those who loved to be seen in fine clothes, whose advice to others was to give away their surplus garments and whose own resting place was the wayside.

 

Why should his servant go about in a chasuble and stole of fine brocade modelled on the court dress of ancient Constantinople? Well, of course, it is not essential. I have celebrated the Eucharist in muddy combats on the tailgate of a Land Rover, and never for a moment did I consider it to be any less valid or legitimate. But the robes have their value nevertheless, and their purpose is twofold:

 

First of all they obscure the identity of the celebrant. When I don my vestments, I am no longer Alec Battey in my favourite trousers, and the shirt I chose because it was just the right colour to go with my eyes. I am a priest, robed as priests are robed. The focus is placed squarely on the sacrament performed, and not the individual performing it.

 

Secondly the vestments point to Christ. Their richness bears witness to his glory. They remind us that we stand before the mercy seat, before the awesome presence of the Lamb upon his throne. We are raised up, as we come before the altar, into the Heavenly court, where Christ in his majesty offers us more than we dare to deserve.

 

Like an actor in a play the priest dresses the part to assume a role. Using artifice to convey a greater reality, and turning with the people to face the altar of God.

 

And so it was for John the Baptist. Not for him fine robes, but nevertheless there was the impression that he was involved in something special - calling His people to the baptism of repentance in the River Jordan. What, they asked, made him so special? What gave him the right to preach this startling message of change? It was important to know. Was he the prophet Isaiah? The shadowy figure of Elijah returned? Was he the Messiah?

 

‘No’ says John, with a startling, and almost comic honesty. As his answers get progressively shorter, one feels he might almost be getting frustrated…

 

‘I am not the Messiah.’

‘Are you the prophet?’

‘I am not.’

‘Are you Elijah?’

‘No!’

 

He himself is nobody special, he maintains, but exists to point the way to one who is uniquely special, the latchet of whose shoe he is not worthy to unloose. In so far as he stands out at all, it is with a borrowed, a reflected light.

 

Sure enough, John must have cut as strange figure in his clothes of camel’s hair, eating locusts and wild honey. He did not, it seems make it easy for those who followed him. He had a difficult message, and he didn’t go out of his way to make himself accessible. But the message, even if it was challenging, was also compelling. The Messiah is here. He is already in your midst. Prepare yourself because time is short.

 

So it is that as we approach Christmas, we all stand in the place of John the Baptist, and yet the temptation for the Church, as we point towards the coming of Christ, is to join our voices to the general cacophony of the marketplace around us, jockeying for attention, and so surrendering, or compromising the uniqueness of our message to present a more appetising front to the world.

 

Yet, like John, the job of evangelism is not to be salesmen for Jesus, but to be a signpost pointing to him. Not a billboard, but a mirror reflecting his light and his glory. John did not seek attention, did not seek a crowd and point to himself. He sought a wilderness and pointed others towards Christ, towards God.

 

But the God to whom he directed them was an unknown God, and the Christ, an unrecognised Messiah. The Pharisees, priests and Levites may well have felt themselves especially qualified to pick out the anointed one in the crowd, may even have expected Him to be one of them. John stood out as strange and otherworldly, he had the charismatic magnetism that accompanies truth. But Jesus had grown to adulthood unremarked-upon.

 

He was in the world, and the world was made by him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own, and his own received him not.

 

‘Among you,’ said John, as much to us as to them, ‘stands one whom you do not know.’ Jesus is coming, but not to be on our team, not to sing by our hymn sheet, or play by our rules, not to be recruited to serve our agenda. He is coming as king to lay claim to his kingdom, and we must be humble enough to recognise him.

 

To live in expectation of Christ is to be prepared to meet Him in every encounter. To seek his face in the mundane and commonplace, in the marginal and the unlovely. To catch him in our peripheral vision while our attention is elsewhere. He is the one whom we do not yet fully know, but by whom we are fully known and loved.