John the Baptist
St John the Baptist is one of the people whom the Church presents to us as a model during the Advent season.
Advent is a time when we are asked to notice the “signs of the times” – the signs of joy and hope as the kingdom of God is beginning to establish itself in our hearts and in our society. It is celebrated as the shortest day of the year approaches and, as the evenings close in earlier and earlier each day, we are reminded that some time, some year, maybe this year, we will all celebrate our last Advent. Whether the end of the world fills us with fear and dread, of with expectant hope, depends, I think, on faith. Our faith invites us to celebrate Advent as a time of waiting and hope as we look forward to the Second Coming of Christ, when the world as we know it will be transformed and renewed by the coming of his kingdom of justice, love and peace.
The 2000 years that have passed since the coming of Christ in our human flesh has been a time of grace for all humanity, a time when the Good News of God’s saving mercy and reconciliation has been preached to all nations and peoples, a time when the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit has been transforming our world and preparing each of us for the coming of the kingdom. Each Advent we remember that this period of grace heralds the coming of the kingdom of God and, like the people of Palestine at the time of Jesus, we try to prepare ourselves by listening to the words of John the Baptist: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2).
Today’s readings present John the Baptist as the returning Elijah, the one who would restore all things before the resurrection of the dead on the last day. Today’s first reading from the book of Sirach is an Old Testament prophecy about the first of the Old Testament prophets, Elijah, who was carried up to heaven in a fiery chariot and who would return at the appointed time to restore the relationship between Yahweh and his people. He would “calm the wrath of God” by calling the people of Israel to conversion so that they could be reconciled with God.
Elijah did not return in person but the prophecy about Elijah was fulfilled in John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. In the Gospel of Luke we are told that, before he was born, the angel Gabriel had told John’s father, Zechariah, that his son John would be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb, and that he would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the people for his coming by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just (see Lk 1:15-17).
When John was born, his father, Zechariah, prophesied that he would be a prophet of the Most High because he would go before the Lord to prepare people for his coming, inviting them to experience God’s tender mercy and salvation by having their sins forgiven, and calling them to allow the light of Christ to guide them to the fullness of peace, wholeness, harmony, and well-being in the kingdom of God (Lk 1:76-79).
John recognised that the foundations of the promised kingdom of God were about to be laid by the coming Messiah (actually Jesus, his cousin), and he preached a baptism of repentance and conversion for the forgiveness of sins (Lk 3:3) inviting the people to repent and be converted so that the coming of the kingdom would be a time of joy and celebration for them rather than a time of judgement and desolation. Aware that we also need the gifts of conversion and healing if we are to share in the coming of the kingdom, our response to today’s psalm asks Jesus, our shepherd and Redeemer to turn our hearts back to God during this Advent so that we may be saved: “God of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.”
Today’s Gospel is a warning to us to listen to the words of John the Baptist and to make this Advent a time of repentance and conversion as we wait for the Second Coming of Jesus our Lord in glory. The day of the Lord’s coming to save us is near and, like John the Baptist, we have been called to prepare the way before him, to “make his paths straight” by bringing our lives into conformity with our faith in Christ.
John the Baptist was a realist. He knew that the coming of the Messiah demanded that we break with our deeply ingrained habits of sinfulness and that only the power of God could turn our hearts back to God. The Gospel tells us that a great number of people responded to his invitation by travelling out to the wilderness near the Jordan where he lived, confessing their sins, and committing themselves again to God by receiving Baptism.
Today, as we prepare for Christmas, John the Baptist invites us to a similar realism as we try to live our Christian lives in the light of the coming of the kingdom. We cannot hope to share in the kingdom of God unless we are willing to challenge those things that are opposed to the coming of the kingdom in our own hearts and in the heart the society in which we live. We are invited to recognise and to leave behind the attitudes of suspicion, small-mindedness, jealousy, hatred, and bias that make us enemies of the coming kingdom. We are invited to cultivate anew the attitudes of welcome, generosity, support, and love that can make our hearts and our homes a source of hope and joy for ourselves and for others.
Although people vary in their response to this call, it is not something foreign to us because we have all been created in the image and likeness of God and some part of us recognises the truth even if we are not fully prepared to accept all of its consequences. Herod was fascinated by John and wanted to hear what he had to say even though he eventually ordered his execution rather than lose face before his courtiers. Like John, those whose lives testify to the coming of the kingdom, those who honour God’s commandments, and those who work for reconciliation based on conversion and repentance, can be ignored and badly treated here on earth but our faith assures us that the love we show and the hope we cherish is not in vain. If we are prepared to welcome this Advent as a providential opportunity to put our lives in order, if we are prepared to welcome the healing and renewal that is offered to us in the sacrament of Reconciliation, if we allow the Sanctifying Spirit to “bring us back” to God, we can be sure that Jesus, our Lord and King, will recognise us, and welcome us into his kingdom, when he comes again in glory.
Fr. Charles Sérignat OFM Cap