For the Twenty-Third of December
A week after the birth of his son, the priest Zechariah confirmed in writing that the baby would have the name “John”, which means “God has shown favor”, or “God is gracious”.
With such a name, was John himself a gracious man?
Later on, in his preaching, John comes across as less than gracious.
Threatening the people with warnings of punishment for sin, John proclaimed:
Every tree that does not bear good fruit
is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Wheat is gathered into a barn,
but the empty husks are swept up
and burned in unending fire.
John’s manner of life as a man was one of harsh penance.
There is paradox in all of this.
With a God-given name that means, “God has shown favor”, or “God is gracious”, how did John end up punishing his own body and threatening people with hellfire?
The clue to reconciling John’s harsh style with God’s gracious favor comes when for the first time we see John meet Jesus face to face.
That happens while John is baptizing crowds of sinners in the Jordan River, and Jesus is among them.
John looks into the crowd, sees Jesus and says aloud:
Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
Right there in that cry of recognition and that choice of words is a clue for reconciling John’s prophetic penances with the gracious favor of God.
“Behold, the Lamb of God whose flesh and blood will be sacrificed to atone for sin and pay for God’s gracious favor and mercy.”
God’s gracious favor in Christ is not the mere cancellation of a debt.
God’s in Christ paid the price for his own mercy— paying off the debt of sin with his own flesh and blood.
Christ’s human flesh and blood, sacrificed for sin, and present in the Eucharist— soon present on this very altar— the human body and blood of God the Son are given to us, his brothers and sisters in flesh and blood— his brothers and sisters in God the Father.
The Eucharist is the prodigy, the promise, the presence and the price God paid for mercy.
John’s harsh penance is not an effort to buy God’s mercy.
Rather, his penance and his preaching are a movement of love and thanksgiving, pointing forward, asking for and echoing the price of God’s mercy paid in flesh and blood— the very payment we are privileged to receive in the Eucharist.
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The Preface of the Mass for December 18-24
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give him thanks and praise.
Father, all-powerful and ever-living God,
we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
His future coming was proclaimed by all the prophets.
The virgin mother bore him in her womb with love beyond all telling.
John the Baptist was his herald
and made him known when at last he came.
In his love Christ has filled us with joy
as we prepare to celebrate his birth,
so that when he comes he may find us watching in prayer,
our hearts filled with wonder and praise.
And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven
we proclaim your glory
and join in their unending hymn of praise:
Holy, holy, holy….