Scorn not my humble ways,
and if my hue is tawny do not loathe me.
On me you well may gaze
Since, after that, the rays
Of every grace and loveliness will clothe me.
This is the divine love we believe has come—and keeps coming—into the world, into our lives. St. Paul repeats the message: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near” (4:4-5). Has this most central mystery of our faith really found its way into the depth of our hearts yet? It’s not easy to believe in such a God, because we have so few experiences of love like this. And, at some level, we may be afraid of such a love, for it is divine and we are all too human. (Handel again: “But who may abide the day of his coming?”) It will pull and stretch us, take us where we may not want to go. (Weren’t people always complaining about the company Jesus kept?) The life of faith is hard because it is a life of love.
In the gospel, John the Baptist warns us what kind of love Christ is and brings, when he comes: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). God comes to set us on fire again where we have become complacent or cold; to free and self-forgetful, where we have become narcissistic and forgetful of others. Perhaps the fire of his coming is also like a lightning bolt meant to wake us up, get us moving out into the world, out of our comfort zones, to respond to its need and suffering. For God’s love is not blind to suffering and if we let her love into our lives, we can no longer be blind to it either.
If, like the people in the gospel, we are willing to ask “What should we do?” the Baptist’s answer is as practical—and challenging—today as it was then: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (3:11). Such generosity is all the more difficult in hard times but for that reason, all the more urgent. The good news of the Lord’s coming is the Spirit and fire he brings, that will enable us to reach out this way – not only in our personal lives, but in our public lives as citizens. Even more: it may be in the very act of reaching out to the other in need, that we will experience his coming.
So, as St. Paul says, “Rejoice! The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5). Ask him, “What should I do?” and don’t be surprised when he answers.