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Fr. Michael's Thoughts on Biblical Imagery: John the Baptist


            The Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent (Year A) is from Matthew 3:1-12. The inspired writer presents John as a grim prophet of fiery imminent judgement. In addition to the fact that the ministry of John the Baptist is given a place of prominence in all our four gospels, it is the express testimony of Mark that the gospel story of Jesus Christ had its beginning in the work of the Baptist. This opinion was general in the apostolic age, and is probably to be traced to the explicit teaching of Jesus himself. The plain corollary of this is that an understanding of John is indispensable to a true appreciation of the work of Jesus. At the time of John’s advent, the religious atmosphere of Israel was surcharged with fervent desire and hope. The nation was restless and daily prayed for the Messiah, so long promised and so long delayed.

            When John the Baptist came into the scene he described himself as a voice crying out in the wilderness. He quoted the prophets Isaiah who had prophesized in Isaiah 40:3: “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The emergence of a prophet’s voice was a blessing to the “House of Israel.” The emergence of John the Baptist was like the sudden sounding of the voice of God. At this time, the Jews were sadly conscious that the voice of the prophets spoke no more. They said that for 400 years there had been no prophet. Throughout long centuries, the voice of prophecy had been silent. As they put it themselves, ‘There was no voice, nor any that answered.’ But in John the prophetic voice spoke again. What then were the characteristics of John and his message? One and all are invited to share in the following characteristic of John because like him by virtue of our baptism we are all prophets.

            Firstly, he fearlessly denounced evil wherever he might find it. If Herod the king sinned by contracting an evil and unlawful marriage, John rebuked him. If the Sadducees and Pharisees, the leaders of orthodox religion, the ‘church’ leaders of their day, were sunk in ritualistic formalism, John never hesitated to say so. If the ordinary people were living lives which were unaware of God, John would tell them so.

            Wherever John saw evil – in the state, in the religious establishment, in the crowd – he fearlessly rebuked it. He was like a light which lit up the dark places; he was like a wind which swept from God throughout the country. It was said of a famous journalist who was great, but who never quite fulfilled the work he might have done, ‘He was perhaps not easily enough disturbed.’ There is still a place in the Christian message for warning and denunciation. ‘The truth’, said Diogenes, ‘is like the light to sore eyes.’ ‘He who never offended anyone’, he said, ‘never did anyone any good’.

            It may be there have been times when the Church was too careful not to offend. There come occasions when the time for smooth politeness has gone, and the time for blunt rebuke has come.

            Secondly, John the Baptist urgently summoned men and women to righteousness. John’s message was not a mere negative denunciation; it was a positive erecting of the moral standards of God. He not only denounced people for what they had done; he summoned them to what they ought to do. He not only condemned them for what they were; he challenged them to be what they could be. He was like a voice calling people to higher things. He not only rebuke evil, he also set before men and women the good.

            It may well be that there have been times when the Church was too occupied in telling people what not to do, and too little occupied in setting before them the height of the Christian ideal.

            Thirdly, John came from God. He came out of the desert. He came among the people only after he had undergone years of lonely preparation by God. John leapt, as it were, into the arena full-grown and full-armed.’ He came, not with some opinion of his own, but with a message from God. For a long time before he spoke to the world, he had kept company with God. The preacher, the teacher with the prophetic voice, must always come into the presence of others out of the presence of God.

            Fourthly, John pointed beyond himself. The man was not only a light to shine on all that was evil, a voice to rebuke sin, he was also a signpost to God. It was not himself whom he wished people to see; he wished to prepare them for the one who was to come. It was the Jewish belief that Elijah would return before the Messiah came, and that he would be the herald of the coming King. ‘Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes’ (Malachi 4:5). John wore a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather belt around his waist. That is the very description which the Revised Standard Version gives of the clothing that Elijah had worn (2 Kings 1:8).

            John was preparing the way for the king. Preachers, teachers with prophetic voices, point not at themselves, but at God. Their aim is not to focus their eyes on their own cleverness, but on the majesty of God. True preachers are obliterated in their message. The people recognized John as a prophet, even after years when no prophetic voice had spoken, because he was a light to light up evil things, a voice to summon men and women to righteousness, and a signpost to point them to God, and because he had in him that unanswerable authority which clings to anyone who comes into the presence of others out of the presence of God.

            John’s preparation was geared towards “preparation for THE VOICE – Jesus Christ. The first reading gives us glimpses of what we should expect in the man John came to prepare the way for. In the first reading, the inspired writer tells us of God who comes in an earthly form – as a “shoot from the stump of Jesse.” Yet his coming is a unique and ultimate coming. According to the first reading, three things characterizes this advent: (1) the fullness of the Lord’s Spirit which enables the coming one (2) to exercise discerning judgement in favor of the helpless and poor against the violent and wicked and (3) to complete a supra-terrestrial peace that transforms all of nature and mankind. The Spirit of wisdom and knowledge that fills the One who comes is poured out over the world so that the world is “filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea.” When he judges, the Spirited-filled One practices that which he is and has; when he fills the world with his Spirit he distributes what he is and has. In the Bible, knowing God is no theoretical knowledge, rather, it is a drenching of the entire being with inward understanding of what God is. This knowledge is peace in God, participation in God’s peace.

            St Paul in the Second Reading gives us the effect of the coming of the Lord on the people of God. The flame of love brought by the Spirit-bearer flashes up over Israel to embrace the world. The chosen Jews and the hitherto unchosen Gentiles who are now admitted to God’s people are brought into unity in this love. It is this love that we are called to celebrate and share this Christmas. Do not prepare to celebrate Christmas in happiness alone – make another person smile. I wish you the best of preparation for Christmas and may that preparation direct you to prepare more eagerly towards his Second Coming. God bless you all.


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