For, by Matthew’s pairing the movement of the Holy Spirit with an event such as Jesus’ conception, which would easily be perceived as scandalous by outsiders, Matthew asserts the theological claim that Jesus was from the beginning and remained to the end, seen as a scandal in the eyes of our world. Jesus, the incarnation of amazing and transformational love breaking open the societal norms and conventions of the day, was a scandal. This is a very challenging message for most of us, when we realize that God breaks into our world through that which we or others often consider to be scandalous. We have been taught to dismiss, turn away from, and distance ourselves from anything scandalous, but here Matthew is telling us to look within the scandal to find the marvelous deeds of God.
To be a pilgrim on the Way, to be a disciple of Jesus, I discovered on my trip to the Holy Land, means being willing to go down, deep down into the earth, deep down into my soul, to find Jesus. Literally, we descended many flights of steps at the holy sites, to find the Star of Bethlehem which commemorates the birth place of Jesus, to find the grotto where Jesus lived in Nazareth, or to find the prison cell where Jesus was held the night before his trial.From a spiritual perspective, we went down deep into our souls to ask the same question that John asks of Jesus in our gospel today: Are you really the one? This is the question we each need to ask of Jesus and the one we each need to answer for ourselves. For you will notice in our story, Jesus doesn’t claim the title of Messiah, in response to John’s question, but rather Jesus says, “Look at what I’m doing” and then you decide.
We come to church to be refreshed, restored, renewed, and it happens because we go around the carousel. We go through the service, again and again, and our hearts anticipate the forgiveness, nourishment, and the abiding Spirit we receive each week. This is good; one of the purposes of our liturgy and one of the gifts of being a part of the body of Christ. Comfort through the familiarity of being renewed to meet the world again, only to return the following week, is part of the gift the Church offers us. However, the startling and fiery message of John the Baptist we heard in our gospel story today is calling us into something else, something deeper, something which prepares us for our connection to Jesus’ resurrection. For this is also what we come to church for: tapping into the resurrection of Jesus and being changed, being offered new life, seeing life in a brand-new way. This goes beyond refreshment, restoration, and renewal. Resurrection involves complete change and is included in John’s message through the word repentance.
As Christians, we stand at the gate of our own Jerusalem each time we peer into our own souls, into that holy city where God resides within us. The process of making our hearts ready to receive the holiness of Christmas is one of cleansing ourselves from distractions, purifying our souls from the darkness which creeps in occasionally, forgiving others and ourselves, and releasing our reliance upon ourselves. This is our Advent work, so that when we awake on Christmas morning, we will be ready to receive the Christ child into our lives, again and anew.