“There is one among you whom you do not recognize.”
This is what St. John the Baptist said to the priests and Levites about Christ (John 1:26). The Son of God is here, but you are so obtuse, you don’t see it.
Even St. John himself had his moments of doubt about his cousin. When Herod imprisoned John, the Baptist sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?”
The other St. John—the Evangelist—also pointed out that people did not recognize Christ. At the beginning of his gospel, St. John wrote: “Christ came to what was His own, but His own people did not accept Him.”
In our first reading we read this prophecy about the coming of Christ: “As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.” Sounds pretty dramatic, hard to miss.
This prophecy is mild, though, compared to some of the other prophecies in Isaiah about the coming of Christ. “I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken from its place” or “I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land.”
God became man, however, and walked the earth, and most of the locals did not notice. First let’s ask ourselves how this could happen, and then let’s ask why.
How could it happen?
First of all, people were expecting the coming of Christ to be different. The pagans expected the gods to come in smoke and lightning bolts, full of terror and fury. The pagans had all kinds of myths about the gods coming down to earth. None of these myths involved stables and mangers, and gentle, humble virgin mothers. The pagans back then respected wealth and prestige, just like they do now. They were not looking for a poor, celibate carpenter who taught His closest followers to give away all their possessions and to reject all titles of honor.
The Jews, meanwhile, were looking for a field general to lead a revolutionary army. Their Romans overlords were hard on them, so the Jews were fighting mad. They were convinced that God would come to smite their foes. It was us vs. them. The Jews did not think that the Messiah would come and say, “Love your enemies,” and “Turn the other cheek.”
Secondly, when God became man, He veiled His divinity with His humanity. He took our humanity to Himself so intimately that His divinity was only evident a few times during His pilgrim life. For example, in His virginal conception, when He worked miracles, read hearts or taught heavenly wisdom, or at the Transfiguration. Otherwise, He was indistinguishable from other men. He ate, drank, slept—just like us. God was a poor man who walked wherever He went.
So, considering all this, it is not hard for us to see how it was possible for people not to recognize the Christ for Whom they were waiting, the Savior of the human race, and the Redeemer of the world.
Now we come to the hard question: Why? Why did the Lord conceal Himself when He came? Why did He choose to be born of such an insignificant woman, instead of a queen? Why did He labor in obscurity in a carpenter-shop for most of His earthly life? Why did He reveal His true identity only to a chosen few, ordering those who saw His miracles not to tell anyone about them? Why did God allow Himself to be arrested, tried, and condemned like a petty criminal? Why did He let Himself be crucified as if He were a powerless mortal?
Why is God so confoundedly humble?
Now, of course, we cannot presume to read the depths of God’s infinitely glorious mind or know the subtleties of His plan. May it please Him, we will spend eternity contemplating His generous love, which led Him to do everything He has done.
We can, however, give a short answer to the question of why God came so gently and unassumingly to earth, why He submitted to indifference and insult. Simply put, the reason is this: He did not come to condemn, but to save.
The day WILL come when the heavens and the earth will shake. The day will come when the Lord will show Himself in power and glory, and no one will miss it.
He could have come that way the first time. But He did not come to terrify; He came to love. He came to make justice and praise spring up—slowly, quietly, like a garden grows. His first coming was to plant the seeds.
The Lord did not want to find us unprepared for the final Judgment. So He came to give us the grace and knowledge we need to be ready when Judgment Day does come.
God is all powerful. God made everything we see and know. But this is what shows us how awesome He truly is: He was willing to be ignored by us. He risked even His own divine honor in order to save us.