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Echoing John the Baptist at Advent

By Philip H. Pfatteicher

The Christian Church, at its best, is remarkably honest. That characteristic is especially clear in the season of Advent, which calls Christians to look ahead toward the second coming of Christ the Lord of glory (what the New Testament calls his Appearing).

In this expectation, the Church identifies with John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the first coming. At the time, John, who had been faithful in his mission, was in prison, and Jesus did not seem to offer any help or hope. John was no longer sure that the one he had pointed out was indeed the Promised One. Perhaps he had been mistaken. After all, things had not gone as he had expected. There was no display of divine power, no sign of triumph. So John sent emissaries to put it to Jesus directly: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt. 11:3).

John the Baptist: Icon from the late Palaiologos epoch, end of the 14th century. Painting by unknown. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Christians today affirm that Jesus was indeed the one who had been promised and whom the world awaited. But looking around at the world as it is now and looking ahead to what has been promised in Scripture, they echo John’s doubtful question. There is no way to tell, no way to be sure. The condition of the world has not changed since biblical times; the coming of the one worshipped as the Savior of the world apparently has made little difference. One cannot help but wonder. An honest confrontation with what seems to be reality stirs doubt and a quiet voice whispers, “Maybe you are mistaken.”

Against that possibility, Christian people cling to the biblical promises and utter the great “nonetheless”. Although they are aware that they may be mistaken, nonetheless they hold the promises that God has made to be dependable. If they do not yet understand or see any clear signs of fulfillment, this may be an indication that the ways of God are far beyond human comprehension. The mind and work of God is greater than mortals can conceive. So in hope and expectation the Christian Church awaits and prays for the promised Appearing of the Lord.

Philip H. Pfatteicher is a Professor of English and Religious Studies Emeritus, East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania and sometime Adjunct Professor of Sacred Music at Duquesne University. He is the author of Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year. Read his previous post on the Holy Cross.

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