When the Christ comes, what will He do?
We read that the people were filled with expectation. They had no real doubt that the Christ would indeed come. But they did not exactly have a crystal-clear idea of what would happen when He did. In fact, as we read, they wondered if John the Baptist might be the Christ.
After all, the Christ might just do things like John the Baptist did: Tell people to deal honestly and fairly with each other. To share their largesse with those in need. To live decent, humble lives. God-fearing people live that way, after all. Always have.
Maybe the Christ would baptize people with water, when they repented of their sins– like John did.
We know that the Jews of that time had a number of different ideas about what the Messiah might be like. Maybe a great military man, a commander-in-chief, a liberator. Maybe an imperial ruler.
Now, no one could mistake John the Baptist for the regal kind of Messiah, or the military kind. But John had the trappings of a third possible kind of Messiah. People easily mistook him for the austere kind of Messiah. The prophetic kind. The monkish kind.
Out in the desert, separated from the nonsense of cosmopolitan life. Living on locusts and wild honey, in total contrast with the gluttonous hypocrites who ran Jerusalem. In a cynical world, John preached repentance and a fresh start at living a holy life.
We can understand the mistake, then, when people began to believe that John was the Christ. But John set them straight. He did not say, “You think I’m the Messiah? Well… I’m flattered…” No, John said, “You have mistaken me. I baptize with water. He will baptize with Spirit and fire.”
Now, literally baptizing people with fire? Could prove highly painful. So St. John must have meant something spiritual with these words of his. The Messiah will not simply preach a just and true doctrine, like the Baptist preached. The real Christ, Jesus, preached a doctrine that penetrates to the center of the human soul and purifies it.
If someone strikes you on one cheek, offer the other cheek as well. If someone asks you for your cloak, give him your tunic also. If someone asks you for money, give, and do not expect repayment. Your reward will be great in heaven. The poor, the meek, the merciful, the pure-hearted, the hungry, and the persecuted will inherit a Kingdom, a kingdom greater than any of the kingdoms of the earth.
Really? The people wondered. They wondered at the idea that the Messiah could be even more of a mind-blower than John the Baptist was. The doctrine of the Christ involved not just an exhortation to live a God-fearing life. It involved a promise about a completely new kind of life to come.
So they asked St. John a reasonable question: What will the Christ do?
The man of consummate gravity said: Look. I am nothing. I am a breath of air. I am a feather floating on the wind, compared to the One Who is to come. The Christ does not simply preach the truth. He is the Truth. He judges all. Christ wields the great winnowing fan, and He gathers His wheat into His barn.
With this image, St. John the Baptist has given us one of the great keys for making sense out of life. This world, this pilgrim life, is a threshing floor.
What is “winnowing?” It’s so simple that the Wikipedia article about it has only one paragraph. Chaff has no real substance. It will blow away in the wind. When the winnowing fan beats the air, the chaff blows off, and only the meaty grain remains on the threshing floor.
The Christ of God comes with the winnowing fan of truth in His hand. The truth of divine love. He will judge everything according to the criterion of the Father’s love.
But that’s not the whole image. The Christ wields a winnowing fan for a reason. Because He has a barn. He has a place to put the meaty grain, after the chaff gets separated and burnt.
This pilgrim life involves one big separation. The omnipotent winnowing fan separates beauty from ugliness, good from evil, enduring life from fleeting ephemera. Every good choice we make adds to our substance. Every sin dissipates us more and more, towards the weightlessness of chaff. We don’t want to blow away, in the end. We want to have weight, the weight of God’s goodness. Because the winnowing process does not last forever. Eventually, Christ will completely separate good from evil…
Then: A barn, of a crisp evening. Raking the stables. The smell of the hearth fire burning in the house nearby. Peace. An end to striving, struggling, and fighting. Just home, the comfort of our true home, with God.