Do You Recognize Them?

Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. —Matthew 17:11-12

Jews have a tradition of leaving an empty chair and place setting at the table for Elijah, whose second coming they are awaiting. The empty place is a symbol of their preparation and readiness to receive him. Another Jewish tradition says that Elijah walks throughout this world in the disguise of a poor person to see how people treat him. Does that sound familiar? It should, because of our Christian belief that when we encounter the least of our brothers and sisters we are meeting Christ himself. Jesus said that whatever we do to them, we do to him. 

Today’s Gospel reading reminds us that we sometimes don’t recognize the Elijahs, John the Baptists, or Christs who arrive in our lives calling for generosity, compassion, and justice. Some people of John the Baptist’s time embraced his radical life of voluntary poverty and calls for equitable distribution of wealth. But others, notably the powers-that-be (i.e., Herod), murdered him rather than listen to his critiques of their immorality. It’s easy enough to claim that we would have recognized John as someone we should listen to rather than kill, like Herod did. But would we really?

Do we recognize the Elijahs and John the Baptists who show up in our lives now? Do we remember when we sit down to eat that there are people not too far away who wish there was a place at a table for them? Do we practice treating everyone we encounter as we would want to treat Jesus if he walked in our door? If Advent is about preparing our hearts to receive Jesus, what more do we need to do to get ready?

For Reflection: Thinking back on your week, who did you encounter that you overlooked, ignored, or simply didn’t take the time to hear or help? Is there any way you can remedy that now? Vow to be more attentive to such people in the coming week.