In almost every Eastern Orthodox Church the apse, that is, the space behind the altar, is covered with an enormous fresco of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus out toward the world. For the Orthodox, Mary is an icon or image of the church. The painting in the apse is visual shorthand for what the church is supposed to be about: conceiving Christ within us by the power of the Holy Spirit and presenting him to the world. Mary seems to be seeing, “Look here! Here is one we have all been waiting for! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
The readings for Advent 3A bring together two figures who point toward Jesus: Mary and John the Baptist. The painter Matthias Grünewald also brings them together in his Isenheim altarpiece. One one side of the altarpiece we see the Beloved Disciple supporting Mary the Mother of Jesus. Although devastated by grief, she is looking at her son’s body on the cross. Her gaze guides us to the cross, so in a sense, she is fulfilling the function that Orthodox iconography assigns to her. On the other side of the cross is John the Baptist pointing his bony finger at the Crucified Christ and holding a book on which is written the words, Ecce Agnus Dei – “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
Theologian Karl Barth had a reproduction of Grünewald’s painting of John the Baptist on the wall above his desk. He said that it perfectly exemplified the task of a theologian: to point the way toward the Crucified Christ. Perhaps if Barth had been a little more Catholic and a little less Reformed, he would have had a reproduction of the entire altarpiece above his desk, because Mary, no less than John, points us toward her son.
In the gospel reading for Advent 3A, John's disciples asked Jesus an intriguing question: "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" And even more intriguingly, Jesus did not directly answer the question. Instead, Jesus told them what they would see when the true Messiah came: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” The Magnificat, the canticle of Mary that we may use in place of the psalm on Advent 3, also tells us what to look for. When the Messiah comes, he will “scatter the proud in their conceit… cast down the mighty from their thrones… [lift] up the lowly… [fill] the hungry with good things… [send the rich] empty away.”
Perhaps Jesus did not give John’s disciples a simple yes or no answer because he wanted to keep us on our toes. That’s what Advent is about: staying on our toes, being awake and alert, and watching for the signs that the Messiah is drawing near. And if we really long for the Messiah to return, then we will not only be like Mary and John, pointing the world in the direction of the Crucified and Risen One, we will also find that we are the ones opening the eyes of the blind, helping the lame walk again, and filling the hungry with good things. Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come!