And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
— John 1:14
As he led the Church in preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ, Pope Benedict XVI reflected during his Dec. 4 Advent Angelus address on the radical witness of John the Baptist.
“The style of John the Baptist was meant to call all Christians to choose a sober lifestyle, especially in preparation for the feast of Christmas,” said the Pope.
As the immediate forerunner of the Incarnation, John offered “a fiery invitation to a new way of thinking and acting” and “to the announcement of God’s justice,” said the Holy Father. “Therefore, John’s appeal goes far beyond and deeper than a call to a sober lifestyle: It is a call for inner change, starting with the recognition and confession of our sins.”
John the Baptist was the unborn infant who leapt in the womb of Elizabeth as she welcomed her kinswoman, Mary, carrying the Messiah conceived through the Holy Spirit.
John, Mary and Elizabeth were chosen to be the particular family that welcomed the Savior in the form of a human infant.
And as Christ entered his particular world — a nurturing family circle of holy men and women both besieged by danger and comforted by the hopeful promise of the Old Testament prophets, so his disciples over two millennia have been called to “follow” him by embracing their particular circumstances and, in the process, sanctifying the world.
Today, in many parts of the globe, the “asceticism” Benedict speaks of in his Advent meditation is forged by vast, unsought challenges.
An economic crisis has forced once confident men and women to consume their reserves and depend on unemployment benefits or the compassion of strangers.
In China and parts of South Asia and the Middle East, Christians are second-class citizens denied fundamental rights, and sometimes even the right to life.
And as Herod sought to systematically massacre the innocents, so a culture of death continues its steady march through the world, hardening hearts and fueling the destruction of the weak by the strong.
The crucible of suffering might appear less daunting if we knew that it would soon be over and a happy ending would follow, rewarding us for our perseverance, patience and hope.
We do know there will be a happy ending: the ultimate fulfillment of the glad tidings proclaimed at the birth of Christ.
But we do not know the hour or the day.
Still, we have been called to fidelity: faithfulness to our religious or marital vows, faithfulness to the one, holy and apostolic Church, faithfulness to our conscience, purified and refreshed by the grace of the sacraments.
And we know that we are called to do nothing that our Savior has not taken upon himself in greater measure.
“He was despised and rejected” by others, Isaiah (53) reminds us. “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
In his Advent Angelus homily, Pope Benedict called on the faithful to heed the words of John the Baptist and “prepare for Christmas; it is important that we find time for self-contemplation and carry out an honest assessment of our lives.”
Advent is surely the season to be reminded of the mysteries of our faith that illuminate and deepen the meaning of our earthly pilgrimage in good times and bad: God became man; a virgin was called to be the mother of the Savior, an infant King of Kings born in a poor stable. Mary, the Mother of God, stands as our guide and icon.
The Holy Father entrusted the preparation of the Church during this time to “the virgin who awaits” as the faithful “prepare our hearts and our lives for the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us.”
Though Pope Benedict has been unable to participate in many liturgical events in recent months, he was expected to be the chief celebrant at a Mass marking the Dec. 12 feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, who appeared to Juan Diego during his own particular struggles in daily life, many hundreds of years after the birth of her Son.
Blessed John Paul II, in Ecclesia in America, stated: “The appearance of Mary to the native Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac in 1531 had a decisive effect on evangelization. Its influence greatly overflows the boundaries of Mexico, spreading to the whole continent. America, which historically has been, and still is, a melting pot of peoples, has recognized in the mestiza face of the Virgin of Tepeyac, ‘in Blessed Mary of Guadalupe, an impressive example of a perfectly inculturated evangelization.’ Consequently, not only in Central and South America, but in North America as well, the Virgin of Guadalupe is venerated as Queen of all America.”
As the Church in America completes its Advent pilgrimage, let us embrace Mary as our guide.
In our particular time, in our particular land, she offers us the hope that once led John the Baptist to leap with joy in his mother’s womb.
Whether we choose a life of asceticism or struggle to embrace the trials we have, she is there, always drawing us to her beloved son, the Child Jesus, who is coming into the world.