The figure of John the Baptist in today’s Gospel makes it clear once again that the Advent Season is a preparation for the coming of Christ, and not only at Christmas, and most importantly for His coming in glory at the end of time, but also His coming to us here and now, in our daily life, and most especially in each and every Mass we celebrate. St. John the Baptist, after all, was not the herald of Christ at his birth – that was reserved for His angels. John was, rather, the herald of Christ’s coming into the public life and His mission. He was privileged to be the one who would prepare the way for Jesus into the hearts of his first disciples. He is recalled here on the 2nd Sunday of Advent each year to remind us that Advent has these three dimensions, a recalling and celebration of Christ’s first coming, a looking forward to His glorious Secon Coming when he will judge mankind and establish His Kingdom in power, and finally the present dimension, a confession of our faith that Christ is constantly coming into our world in word and Sacrament to bring us to salvation.
Christians with authentic faith approach Christmas very differently then from others who do not have this same deep faith in the meaning of Advent as a preparation for His coming into our world. We are not only recalling the first coming and its joyful message, but also stirring up our desire for Him to come and set our world free at last free from sin and suffering and death, and transformed into a glorious part of His Kingdom. Believing Christians know that their liturgical celebration of His Birth is given depth by its meaning as the beginning of salvation, the beginning of His coming brought about in Him.
Our faith tells us that Jesus’ birth is really the birth of the Son of God, as a member of our human family, the new head, of a new humanity which will spring from Him by the sacrament of rebirth that we call Baptism. Just as Christ took on a second life, a new existence, by virtue of his human birth, so by that birth he enabled all of us to take on a new life, a new existence by virtue of another form of birth, the birth of Baptism. Christ became part of our world by his coming into our world by human birth, and in turn, He enables us to become part of His world by our being drawn into His world by a divine birth in Baptism.
Thus hearing the message of John, who spent his life preaching and baptizing with water, as a foretelling of the greater Baptism Jesus would institute, by water and the Holy Spirit, is a most meaningful way to celebrate Advent and prepare ourselves for Christmas. John’s message about baptism immediately directs our attention to the deepest spiritual meaning of the event of Christ’s birth, it’s reference to our own rebirth to salvation. That faith connection between His birth and our rebirth to salvation is necessary to direct our attention to the proper preparation to meet Christ at His second coming, and equally important how we must prepare ourselves here and now to meet Christ as he comes into our lives in word and sacrament, above all in the Sacrament of the Eucharist, our Holy Mass.
After all, John’s whole life was dedicated to this one goal, to help others prepare
they could receive and accept the Lord Jesus, and John’s own way of life was the best example of how one does that, how one is made ready to receive the Lord God properly, which is to say, receive the Lord God when he comes us to in the mystery of the Eucharist and the other sacraments.
I think we would agree that John’s way of life was truly counter-cultural even in his society. Why did John live such an austere life? Why was he living in the desert a strange place for a herald to live if he wants to reach people? Why was his life-style so austere? The truth is that these practices of St. John point to the great mystery of man’s true and humble condition in relation to God, and not just because of man’s sin, but simply because of God’s Infinite Holiness and man’s nothingness in comparison to that holiness of God.
Of course sin is always a barrier to welcoming God, and welcoming God’s word. God will not abide where evil resides, so we must repent for our sins as John demanded if we are to make straight the way of God into our souls. But John’s own life of austerity cannot so easily be explained as doing penance for sin. There is no doubt about John’s great holiness; the people then recognized it, and even tended to think he himself might be the Messiah, something John had to firmly deny. At any rate, John is without a doubt the greatest of the Old Testament Prophets, and his holiness is unquestionable. So why the austere life style?
If this was not simply a matter of his doing penance for his sins, what good was prophet, which is first of all to receive God’s word Himself, so that in turn he can communicate that same word to others. The prophets understood that to be prepared to hear the Word of God when it came to them, they had to clear away the noise of the world -hence many lived in solitude. They had to detach their hearts from material goods that can often suffocate the voice of God within us. So John lived a simple and austere life which showed in his clothing and food, something we may well do for penance for our sins, but something the prophet must do regardless, if he hopes to hear the Word of God, to be ready to receive it when God choose to send it.
In that wilderness John learned how infinitely different was the holiness of God and His word from any mere human words or human perfection. Even were John without sin, he was still a bit of dust in relation to the One who was speaking to Him in the wilderness. At the same time John knew the danger of his own ego being a barrier to his mission. John was very holy, but he was still a child of Adam, and the human ego, the pretentious “I” of man, which can even set itself up as a rival to God, remains always a real threat to man’s salvation and his openness to God’s word. No matter how holy a man can become, the monster of egoism lurks deep in his soul, and it can always be roused by Satan to challenge God.
John’s temptation would come from those who loved him and admired him most they would be tempted to think he was the chosen one, and in turn they would tempt him to think this way. So John has above all to humble himself, for the greater the and cleared away every hint of self-sufficiency, every possible barrier of human pride. He did this for one purpose: to hear God’s word when God would choose to speak it; and to welcome God’s Word in person and point Him out to others, when God would choose to send Him. John’s task was to be ready to hear, to welcome, to direct others to the One who was being sent. He knew he was himself so much less than the One whom he heralds, that he is unworthy to even untie his sandal strap. he had learned this truth in the austerity of his life, in the desert, and it was his own preparation to welcome Christ when at last He appeared.
The lesson for us seems obvious. If we are to prepare ourselves to receive Christ at Christmas, in the Eucharist, in the Scriptures, at the Second coming, we must follow the example of John and clear away the clutter from our daily lives, simplify our existence so we can tame our own self centered ego and thus be able to recognize and welcome Christ in our daily life and direct others to Christ as well.
We are not called to a literal, slavish imitation of John’s life, to live in the physical desert wear camel hair clothes, but to a spiritual imitation of his profoundly self-denying life-style. We must be counter-cultural like John, for our society is filled with noise, with materialism, with human pride, and it is not an environment in which we can easily hear the Word of God, let alone welcome it. We must find solitude in our life, we must find silence, we must strip our souls of attachments that clutter our lives so that we can no longer hear our God speaking to us in the depths of our being.
Finally, more than John, we must do penance for our sins. We must open our ears to hear God, and open our hearts to receive Him when he comes, in the gentleness of the Holy Eucharist, in the quietness of the interior motions of His Grace in our hearts, in the soft but powerful words of love he speaks to us in the Scriptures and in our hearts. That is the deeper meaning of Advent: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His Paths, and your soul will know the glory of his coming.