How excited we often are at beginnings! We are first in line on Black Friday, first to log on on Cyber Monday, first to wake up and rush to the foot of the tree on Christmas morning – and sometimes even first to return some of those gifts on the day after Christmas.
So we greet with excitement the proclamation that this is “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” And we joyously encounter the messenger proclaiming preparation.
But the invitation becomes an unusual one: an invitation to significant change, a severe turning, and a self- and community-reflection that leads to disorientation and then a radically new direction. The messenger draws forth our inner thoughts and our earnest confession, as we recognize the reality that we are not nearly ready for all the new beginnings that God promises.
A part of our vocation is to know our place – and to be truly known by the people and the landscape surrounding us. John identifies himself as the less powerful, the unworthy, the one who baptizes only with water. He is the forerunner of the Mighty, the Holy One, the Fire Baptizer. There is no false modesty here, but rather the freedom of accurate discernment. And in the mirror of his self-identification, I believe we may recognize ourselves as the less powerful and the unworthy. We baptize with water; yes, we lift up the gospel; yes, we celebrate this Advent as members of the great choirs joined in anticipation – but not in ultimate ways. Our witness is finally and irrevocably penultimate, for we wait. We point beyond ourselves as we know our place.
Sometimes the waiting stretches wrenchingly, breaks us – or perhaps, in God’s mercy, breaks us open. Are we preparing the way for the One far beyond our imaginings?