At last Sunday’s mass, we heard the cries of the people inflamed by the words of the Baptizer. On fire with the truth he had incited in their hearts, they cried, “What should we do?”
John the Baptist said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise….
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming…”
Discriminating among all the conflicting voices clamoring in our ears and competing for our attention is almost impossible. Politicians, pundits and newscasters claim unique access to the truth while expressing their opinions with grave certainty.
In this endless frenzy of words, the shouts of corruption and deceit of the enemy “other side” has become background noise, overshadowed by looming fear of disaster.
Unless we stay awake, alert and watch, we, too, speak words which are disconnected from their meaning.
And- if we listen, we can hear the plea, “What should we do?” underlying each of the distracted voices. We hear it in the conversations about the state of our country, politicians, schools, churches, our priests and young people.
“John made it clear that it wasn’t enough for the crowds simply to listen to and believe in his preaching; he expected them to change their behavior, if necessary, and to prepare a place for the Messiah in their hearts. In this way the Lord would be able to rejoice over His people, fulfilling the words of the prophet Zephaniah (3:14-18); in this way God’s people would themselves be able to rejoice, as St. Paul describes in his Letter to the Philippians (4:4-7). Christian joy is based not on some vague idea of eventual happiness, but on an active and personal relationship with Jesus Christ—a relationship whose effects are meant to be very visible in our own lives.”
we might ask the same of ourselves.
Have these holy days of Advent affected our behaviors?
Have we repented, that is, rethought our habits?
John’s replies were specific to each person:
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”
John knew that his was the voice preparing for the Word. Prepared before birth to hear, recognize and proclaim he whose “strap I am not fit to untie,” John was not just a prophet. He was to “go before the Lord to prepare his way- to give his people knowledge of salvation.
St. Augustine explains:
“John is the voice, but the Lord is the Word who was in the beginning. John is the voice that lasts for a time; from the beginning Christ is the Word who lives forever. Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart…Because it is hard to distinguish word from voice, even John himself was thought to be the Christ. The voice was thought to be the word.
But the voice acknowledged what it was, anxious not to give offence to the word. I am not the Christ, he said, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. And the question came: Who are you, then? He replied: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord. The voice of one crying in the wilderness is the voice of one breaking the silence. Prepare the way for the Lord, he says, as though he were saying: “I speak out in order to lead him into your hearts, but he does not choose to come where I lead him unless you prepare the way for him.”
John’s was the kind of calling that terrified me as a new Christian; a fear that kept me from inviting Jesus completely into my heart and soul.
The way we see the man, John the Baptist makes us draw back. John is alone, eating locusts and honey, a man seemingly so consumed by his mission that he is aware of nothing else. A person with the courage to declare unlawful the marriage of the most powerful man in the land.
And to do it publicly.
Donatello’s sculpture, pictured above, presents John the Baptist, as tortured and ravaged- haunted. His is a fitting image for one who feasts on locusts and honey. And it works on us all to make us recoil from him and all those super-human saints. Unless we ponder the Gospel reading for this day. If we allow the words seep into our hearts, our very cells, then we may see a wholly different man.
One so filled with the holy spirit while still an unborn babe that he jumped with the joy of infused grace at the approach of Jesus in the womb of Mary, has access to wisdom that we do not.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb,
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit,
cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”
Suffused with wisdom, isn’t it possible that his face and being were filled with the splendor and glory of Christ?
Peaceful, even beatific?
Certain of his destination?
Wouldn’t that be the primary reason that so many were drawn to him?
What should we do?
“No doubt the Son of God in his omnipotence could have taught and sanctified men by appearing to them in a semblance of human form as he did to the patriarchs and prophets, when for instance he engaged in a wrestling contest or entered into conversation with them, or when he accepted their hospitality and even ate the food they set before him. But these appearances were only types…
For unless the new man, by being made in the likeness of sinful flesh, had taken on himself the nature of our first parents, unless he had stooped to be one in substance with his mother while sharing the Father’s substance and, being alone free from sin, united our nature to his, the whole human race would still be held captive under the dominion of Satan. The Conqueror’s victory would have profited us nothing if the battle had been fought outside our human condition. But through this wonderful blending the mystery of new birth shone upon us, so that through the same Spirit by whom Christ was conceived and brought forth we too might be born again in a spiritual birth; and in consequence the evangelist declares the faithful to have been born not of blood, nor of the desire of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.