In every political campaign there are some workers who receive little notice, but who have a very important job: advance men and women. It’s their responsibility to go to the places the candidate plans on visiting and make sure everything’s ready when he or she arrives: a large and friendly crowd, flags, political banners and posters, a high school band or other musicians, news coverage, and so forth. We tend to think of this as a fairly modern technique, but the practice is actually a very old one. For instance, when ancient kings or rulers planned to visit a distant part of their kingdom, they’d send out royal messengers in advance to tell the people to get ready. There was much to be done: roads had to be repaired, public buildings cleaned up, and a proper reception prepared; also, the messengers would instruct the people in the proper protocol for receiving the king.
We are experiencing the same thing in a spiritual sense: we are preparing for God’s coming into the world. At Christmas we’ll celebrate Jesus’ First Coming; throughout the year we’re called to look forward to His Second Coming. We’ll probably not see the end of the world in our lifetimes; it’s much more likely we’ll instead encounter God at the moment of our death. In either case, the Lord wants us to be ready—and He sends us His messengers for this purpose.
The greatest herald or messenger of all was, of course, John the Baptist—and the Gospel of John (1:6-8, 19-28) describes the role he was given. The Jewish people longed for the promised Messiah, or Savior, and when John began his ministry of preaching and baptizing, many people wondered whether he might be the one they were eagerly awaiting. The religious authorities in Jerusalem heard of him, and sent a delegation of priests to question and investigate him. Priesthood in Judaism was hereditary; any male from the tribe of Levi was entitled to function as a priest. John was from this tribe; his father Zechariah had been a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem, and if John himself desired to exercise this role, no one could stop him—so the religious authorities quite naturally decided that, at the very least, they should question him about what he was doing.
The priests asked him first of all, very bluntly, “Are you the Messiah?” “I am not,” answered John. Then they asked, “Are you Elijah?” Many Jews believed the prophet Elijah, who had been taken up to Heaven in a fiery chariot, would return to announce the Messiah’s arrival—but John said he was someone else. The priests continued, “Are you a prophet?” “No, I am not,” said John. “Well, then,” the priests insisted, “tell us who you are, so we can give some answer to those who sent us.” Quoting the prophet Isaiah, John responded, “I am a voice in the desert, crying out, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord!’”—in other words, an advance man, or messenger, sent to prepare for Christ’s coming (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year B, p. 7). The exact nature of John’s preparation was that of preaching and baptizing, urging sinners to repent and calling all people to live justly and to be ready for the imminent coming of the One sent by God. In this way, John the Baptist was fulfilling part of Isaiah’s prophecy (61:1-2a, 10-11), for his message was one of glad tidings to the lowly and liberty to those enslaved by sin.
God continues to send us messengers today, persons who have the responsibility of helping us prepare for His Kingdom. The authors of the Bible, for instance, continue to speak God’s Word to us just as they have for all earlier generations of Christians. In his Letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:16-24), St. Paul urges us to rejoice always, never to cease praying, and to render constant thanks; if we follow his advice by trying to live in a spirit of gratitude and prayer, we will be ready for Christ’s coming.
In our own world there sometimes have been and are great religious leaders who can inspire us and remind us of God’s love, including persons like the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Popes St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II, both of whom were canonized earlier this year, along with our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, who has touched the hearts of many millions of Catholics, Christians, and even non-Christians around the globe.
In addition to famous religious leaders, there are other messengers of God all around us, persons we often fully fail to know and appreciate: the single mother who struggles by herself to raise her children in a home of faith, the high school or college student who tries to avoid going along with the crowd when it’s against his conscience, the ill or disabled person who doesn’t want to burden others by complaining about her problems, the businessman who tries to place his responsibilities as a Christian ahead of his desire for a profit, the child who in a simple and loving way tries to please his or her parents, the worker who believes in giving an honest effort for his or her salary, and the friend or neighbor who’s always there to lend a hand, do a favor, or listen with a sympathetic ear.
The Lord has sent many messengers and even modern-day prophets to help us prepare for His coming—and we ourselves may indeed be called to fill this role for someone else. As our celebration of Christmas draws closer, let us receive the word of God with joy, and then generously share it with one another.