There is one among you whom you do not recognize. (John 1:26)
I find this sentence by John the Baptist quite unsettling because it refers to our beloved Lord Jesus Christ. This is Gaudete Sunday; the priest (and deacon) wear pink vestments as an invitation to ease and to rejoice.
But how can we rejoice after John the Baptist mentions our inability to recognize Christ among us? If we do not have a way of recognizing him, how can we possibly force a smile on our faces and go about our tasks as if everything was all right?
Troubled by this statement, I could come up with only one explanation. Here it is:
We cannot be rejoicing heartily in the Lord our God who is the joy of our souls (Isaiah 61:10) unless we can recognize him not only in the elegant and appealing form of his flesh in the manger of Bethlehem and in the Blessed Sacrament, but even the distasteful aspects of his flesh visible in unfortunate and miserable human beings. St. Gianna Beretta Molla, who was a surgeon and a pediatrician but also a daily communicant made the connection between the appealing and not appealing forms of God’s flesh: “We, physicians are like priests, we touch Christ through our patients. Christ lives in every suffering person.”
With that somber statement about our inability to recognize Christ in the unappealing forms of his flesh, John the Baptist challenges us to make this connection constant, in our churches with the Blessed Sacrament but also anywhere there is misery and suffering—around the clock, 24/7/365. This connection is why we need to celebrate Christmas every year, wholeheartedly, joyfully but also—properly.
The proper way of celebrating Christmas should lead us toward a joyous jolt in contemplating the Baby in the manger, but it must be quickly followed by the thought that the flesh of that tender Baby will be torn by cruel nails on a cross; and that it is like the flesh of unborn babies dismembered without anesthetic— in abortions. It is also like the flesh sold and abused in human trafficking, blown up by cluster bombs, exploited in cobalt mines, driven to exhaustion in sweatshops, rotting on the bodies of political prisoners, aching after long hours of work around the house, at the office, in factories.
It is God who, out of love, chooses to assume our human flesh in its most realistic, humbling, embarrassing characteristics, and limits. This is the connection that we must make before we can rejoice heartily in the Lord, before we can make sense of our life and use the time allotted us by God to care for his flesh.
At the end of our life, we will not be judged on how we conducted ourselves before the Blessed Sacrament, on how we enjoyed our devotions, on the number of prayers that we said but on how well we would have recognized the One hidden among us and attended to the needs of his flesh. Reading the lives of many saints, we come across a turning point. It is the point when they discover Christ’s love for them despite their miseries and sins. It is the time when the hesitations, the flaws, the imperfections, the mistakes, the messiness of their flesh do not keep Christ away from them but, rather, seem to attract Christ who is felt closer than ever before.
Notice how St. Paul puts next to each other two famous commands: to rejoice always and to pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17) Prayer, in its broader interpretation, must include solid awareness of the closeness of God even in the darkest, most humbling aspects of our human flesh. We can rejoice always because we would be praying without ceasing, we would be always aware that God is “comfortable” being so close to our flesh with all its miseries.
Little by little, this type of recommended prayer of awareness becomes the default interior state of genuine, lasting serenity, free of nagging anxieties and of those worries unbecoming of a true believer. Eventually, we will become convinced, viscerally, that the Father loves Christ’s flesh with infinite love and, therefore, that he has the same care for us since we are one with the Son. This constant prayer of awareness of the Father’s unfailing divine care will intensify our rejoicing, make it natural and, thus, free us to divert attentive care from ourselves and direct it to hurting human flesh all around thus.
The prophet Isaiah mentions that we must attend to the needs of the poor, brokenhearted, captives, and prisoners; but even a superficial, quick glance around us will direct our attention to many more cases of pained flesh clamoring for our attention and love. It seems to me that this way of looking at Christmas is designed to provide us with many reasons for rejoicing because we find many reasons for caring for all flesh.
This rejoicing and praying will eventually spill into eternity, into the endless Eucharist, if we did recognize the flesh of our God and did attend faithfully, joyously to its needs during our sojourn on this earth.