In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Throughout this season of Advent, the Prophet Isaiah proclaims a true and proper Gospel for the people of Israel, enslaved in Babylon, and urges them to remain vigilant in prayer, to recognize "the signs" of the coming of the Messiah. But we would be remiss if we did not also look to the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John, a “voice crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”
John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s words, like those of the Prophet Isaiah, create in us a sense of expectation and anticipation of something wonderful and special, of something life-changing and irreversible.
The Baptist calls for a change of heart and conduct, a turning of one's life from rebellion to obedience towards God. It is the only condition for recognizing the Messiah already present in the world. The kingdom of heaven is at hand: "heaven" (literally, "the heavens") is a substitute for the name "God" that was avoided by devout Jews of the time out of reverence. The expression "the kingdom of heaven" occurs only in the Gospel of St. Matthew. It means the effective rule of God over His people. In its fullness, it includes not only human obedience to God's word but the triumph of God over physical evils, ultimately over death. In the expectation found in Jewish apocalyptic, the kingdom was to be ushered in by a judgment in which sinners would be condemned and perish, an expectation shared by the Baptist. This was later modified in Christian understanding where the kingdom is seen as being established in stages, culminating with the parousia (second coming) of Jesus.
St. Matthew presents John the Baptist as the first Christian preacher. Wearing the clothes of a latter-day Elijah (II Kings 1:8), John solemnly proclaims that God is undertaking a new involvement with humankind. The expectation of the return of Elijah from heaven to prepare Israel for the final manifestation of God's kingdom was widespread, and according to Matthew, this expectation was fulfilled in the Baptist's ministry (Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13).
John's whole mission was a preparation for the Messiah's coming. When his own disciples came to him and were troubled about the meaning of Jesus' baptizing in the Jordan, he answered them confidently: "No one can receive anything except what is given them from heaven..." John says that he is only the friend of the Bridegroom, the one who must decrease while his Master increases. The Baptizer defined his humanity in terms of its limitations. When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus' own testimony to John makes the Baptizer the greatest of all Israelite heroes (Matthew 11:7-19; Lk 7:24-35).
John considered himself to be less than a slave to Jesus: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11). John gave the people of his time an experience of forgiveness and salvation, knowing full well that he himself was not the Messiah, the one who could save. Do we allow others to have experiences of God, of forgiveness and of salvation?
The crowds came to John and asked him, "What then shall we do?" The Baptist did not mince words. He got right to the point and said what needed to be said. He advised no one to leave the world they are in, however ambiguous it may be. Rather, he told those with two coats to share one with those who had none. Likewise, those with an abundance of food were to share with the hungry. Tax collectors were told to collect no more than was appointed to them. Soldiers were to rob no one by violence or by false accusation. They were to be content with their wages. What were people to do to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah? To be generous, just, honest, grateful and compassionate. (Luke 3:10-14).
The Israelite prophet is one who has received a divine call to be a messenger and interpreter of the Word of God. The word which came to the prophet compelled him to speak. The prophet is also the conscience of a community and the conscience of a nation. Ezekiel tells us a prophet is like a watchman, the person who is out there watching for what might happen to the community, issuing a warning, trying to alert everyone, "Things are going the wrong way" or "We're in danger. We have to change. We have to be ready to protect ourselves." The prophet is the one who sees farther, perhaps, than others, and the one who sees implications in what is going on.
At times, prophets shared God's anger, God's compassion, God's sorrow, God's disappointment, God's revulsion, God's sensitivity to people, and God’s seriousness. They did not share these things in the abstract; rather, they shared God's feelings about the concrete events of their time. This is the type of prophet that John the Baptist was. He did not mince words. He got right to the point and said what needed to be said. How often our words, thoughts, and actions are incoherent and ambiguous! How often do we skirt the issues and great questions of our time and of our Church! The true prophets of Israel model for us how to counter all forms of duplicity in our own lives.
John the Baptist continues to speak down the centuries to every generation. The "voice" of the great prophet asks us to prepare the way of the Lord, who comes in the external and internal wildernesses of today, thirsting for the living water that is Christ. May the memory of John guide us to true conversion of heart, so that we may make the necessary choices to harmonize our mentalities and lives with the Gospel.