‘I am not fit to undo the strap of sandals’ says John the Baptist of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ. The goodness, the love, the integrity, in short the sheer holiness of Jesus makes John the Baptist feel unworthy. It might surprise you to know that priests sometimes have that John the Baptist moment. Let me explain. In every parish a priest finds hidden saints. People who care without murmur of complaint for loved ones with illnesses or disabilities that will never go away. People who despite their limited means reach out to others less fortunate to help them. People who have suffered great and cruel calamities, and yet who maintain an unshakeable faith. The hidden saints of each parish take different forms. They have one thing in common, though – they think of themselves as ordinary people, ordinary struggling Christians. And yet they are extraordinary.
I think of one woman, a mother of four that I knew. She was a school nurse. One of the pupils at her school came from very challenging circumstances. She was the daughter of a single mother who had serious drug addiction problems and who struggled to cope. One day the mother took her life leaving her small girl without any family. The school nurse phoned her husband. She told him: ‘You know that you are the father of four children? Well, when you come home today you will find that you have five children.’ In truth she and her husband did not have much, but they opened their home and with the agreement of the authorities took the girl under her wing. Not an easy thing to do. But she was a woman of faith. As a priest I see many less high profile examples of people being, quite simply, holy. Generous. Kind. Forgiving. I take my hat off to them.
‘Prepare a way for the Lord’ says John the Baptist in the gospel today. He is picking up the words of Isaiah. Even when John the Baptist quoted them, those words of Isaiah were 500 years old. They told that the Messiah would come. Now, at last, says John, time has come. The Messiah, the Christ, is just around the corner. Prepare for him. Remove obstacles. Be ready. You can almost feel his excitement, can’t you? The ancient prophecies are about to be fulfilled.
What would it mean for us to prepare a way for the Lord? This is a strange time in the life of our nation. We sometimes feel, in the words of Yeats the poet, that things fall apart and the centre cannot hold. The government seems directionless. The inherited wisdom that has sustained us for centuries, wisdom rooted in Christian tradition, is openly scorned. Economic storm clouds gather. We wonder where we will find strength, courage, vision. If only Christ were here.
But he is here. He is among us. He touches lives. He touches even your life and mine. We don’t talk about such things. They are too personal. And yet, Jesus the Christ, the living fulfillment of the promises of God, is moving among us. Lives are changed. In a few cases, dramatically. In many cases changed more slowly, over the years, as people try to live his teaching and to follow his example. The priest sees the hidden saints, perhaps you see them too. They show us that God in Christ is working among us still.