I seem to remember my teachers in grade school using this line periodically: “We’re going to do something different today!” they would say. Whatever we did usually didn’t seem all that different, really, but I thought of this when reading today’s Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent.
John the Baptist is responding to those who ask him, “Who are you?” After definitively establishing that he is not the Christ, they follow up with other likely possibilities, and he responds by saying that he is neither Elijah nor the Prophet. When they persist in asking for some kind of identification, he says he is something different—he is a “voice.” John the Baptist quotes Isaiah the prophet (from last Sunday’s reading), saying, “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23).
It’s a little puzzling that John the Baptist does not want to be identified as Elijah or the prophet, since, in another place, Jesus affirms that he is both of those things. (See Matthew 17: 11–13, and 11:19.) But I think John is trying to do here with his questioners what my teachers were trying to do with my class. It’s an attempt to spark expectation, interest, and openness. The idea that we are about to encounter something new and different can wake us up enough to pay attention. John brushes away what they expect and think they know about, to offer something different, something they aren’t prepared for. “No, I’m not what you think, what you are assuming I will be, what you already have a sufficient understanding of. I am someone unexpected and I will do unexpected things. So, listen! Pay attention!” This is how he woke up the people to prepare the way for Jesus.
This is what he is saying to us, too—we who may assume we know how the rest of our Advent is going to unfold. There are things we usually do, lots of work to get done, people things, etc. to deal with. But God waits to shake up our routine and inject something new and different into our lives. He actually tries to do this constantly, but when we have no expectation that anything will be different, how can he change things? And if we are not open to his grace, how can he work in us and through us in the world around us?
So, as the rest of Advent goes on, let’s be attentive to how God is looking at us, waiting to see a spark of interest and openness, waiting to see our reaction when we hear him say, “Let’s do something different today!”
Sr. Maria Grace Dateno is a Daughter of St. Paul, and is currently an acquisitions editor at Pauline Books & Media, as well as an author of books for children. Her many nieces and nephews (25 at last count) inspire her writing, including the six-book Gospel Time Trekkers series, which are time-travel adventures for ages six to nine.