In the Gospel today, St. John the Baptist says to us, “There stands among you, one unknown to you, the one who is coming after me.” Now there is a story of a monastery that existed centuries ago. And in that community things were not going so well. The monks argued all the time. The prayers had become sloppy, the chant was hit-and-miss. Many times they were off key and they didn’t care. Young men were no longer joining the community; those who entered didn’t stay. The place was a mess, the gardens were overgrown, the monks lost all pride in their place. People even stopped visiting, why would anyone want to travel to such a pitiful place? Father Abbot looked on and watched as his abbey died. He had to do something, he thought. He then remembered that miles away on the other side of the mountain, there was a hermit known for his holiness and good spiritual advice. Father Abbot decided he would go and see him. So he got on his mule and off he went.
When he got to the hermit’s house, the holy man welcomed him. He asked how things were, and the Abbot told him the whole tragic story of his once flourishing monastery. The hermit listened intently as the Abbot spoke all night. When he had finished his sad story, the hermit looked directly at him and said, “Father Abbot, I am about to tell you something, and you must listen, because I’m only going to say it once. You are not to ask me any questions, and in the same way, you are to tell your monks this very same message. Do you understand?” The Abbot said yes he understood,, and so the holy hermit said to the Abbot in a very loud voice, “Dear Father, Christ is living in your Abbey!” The Abbot looked at him with a puzzled look but remembering his agreement, nodded and remained silent. All the way home he kept thinking “Christ is living in my Abbey.”
The next day he returned home and called the monks together. “Brothers, he said, the holy hermit has given me a word for all of you. I will only say it once, and I will not repeat it, and you may not question me.” The monks waited as the Abbot gathered his thoughts, and the Abbot said to them in a loud and steady voice, “Christ is living in our Abbey.” The monks looked at one another wondering; what does that mean? Does it mean Christ is living here? Did he actually mean living here, living here like one of us? And they looked at each other, wondering which one was the Lord.
Later, they were in choir, and the choirmaster said to himself, “If he is here, we better sing as best as we can.” The chant got better. The brother in charge of the kitchen said to himself, “If he’s here, I better make sure he gets the best food.” The meals were prepared with great care and attention. The monk in charge of the housekeeping said, “If he is here, we better tidy the place up!” He had the broken windows fixed; the cloister was cleaned and painted. The brother in charge of the farm put the fields in order, and had the gates and fences repaired. Monks who hadn’t been on friendly terms came to agreement and reconciled, just in case their opponent was the Special Guest.
Bit by bit, the monastery changed as each monk served each other, as if he were the Lord, just in case. Soon their care became genuine affection and love. They helped each other, they sang beautifully, and they prayed with such intensity that news of the change spread throughout the country. People came back to visit. Young men were attracted to join the community, and the monastery began to flourish.
On the third Sunday of Advent many parishes will bless the bambinelli, the baby Jesus’ of our nativities, and in part of that blessing we hear, “We pray that, with your blessing, these images of Jesus might be a sign of your presence and love in our homes…open our hearts, that we might receive Jesus in joy, do always what he asks of us and see him in those who need our love.” In every moment of our lives, Christ presents himself to us, maybe as a friend maybe as a stranger. In our work, we meet him, in school or in college, we meet him, in the factory, and in the store, we meet him. As we heard in the Gospel, “There stands among you, one unknown to you, the one who is coming after me.” This advent, we pray that the Lord will open our minds and our hearts, so, that like the monks, we will make our lives and world a place where Christ is welcome.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley