Gospel Reflection for Second Sunday of Advent, December 4th By Fr Brian Maher OMI
Sundays two and three of Advent always focus on John the Baptist. Why? Because it was John who recognised Jesus for who and what he was, and it was he who announced him to the world.
During the Season of Advent we wait for Jesus to be born into the world, his birth on that night, celebrated by hosts of angels singing, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace on earth to those of good will.”
John was also the Prophet sent ahead of Jesus to prepare the way before him, and it is fitting that in our Gospels of Advent it is to the words of John we turn in our own preparation for Christmas.
John has always been for me, a fabulous, colourful, and powerful character. He is one on those men I would love to have seen and talked with. As the one sent to introduce Jesus to the world, we only meet him briefly at the beginning of the Gospels of Mark and John, and after the birth stories in Luke and Matthew. His story is presented to us in a fairly simple way – he recognises Jesus as the Messiah, points to him as such, and then he and his followers fade into the background, allowing the ministry of Jesus to begin. However, like every human being, the life of John and his story is far more complex than this, many of these complexities hinted at in the Gospels.
If John the Baptist lived today, we would probably guess that he had a very good PR firm working for him.
As a personality he was, you must admit, very well ‘packaged’ or ‘branded’. Every detail – where he lived, how he dressed, what he ate, what he said, what he did – nothing of his life was left to chance. Everything about him screamed, “Here is someone different, someone unusual, someone a bit strange. Let’s go and see this odd man.”
We are all, I’m sure, aware of this careful packaging in our own world. Music is a very good example, whether it was Rock’n’roll of the 50’s, the protest and drug music of the 60’s, metal music and punk-rock of the 70’s, grunge of the 90’s, rap, hip-hop, jazz, R&B, etc; they all had their distinctive packaging (clothes, hair styles, talk, lifestyle), all of which was intended to grab attention and be noticed.
John the Baptist, in his day, was part of a growing movement of religious Jews, who were more and more concerned by Roman occupation of their land, disillusioned by the collusion of their own leaders with this occupation, longing for and demanding change, and clinging to the promise God gave them after their exile in Babylon, that he would send them a chosen one, the Messiah, who would once and for all free them from occupation, and usher in the great, majestic and everlasting Kingdom of God.
John’s ‘package’ was well planned and dramatically presented. His theatre was the Jordan River, easily recognised and accessed by all. His drama involved strong exhortations to repent and confess past sins. Those who did this, then went into the river to John, where they were ceremoniously emersed in the water of the Jordan as a public sign of their repentance.
He had his own band of close followers, who organised the crowds, saw to the needs of the Baptist and his ministry, and learned from him.
John himself maintained an aura of mystery. At the end of each day he withdrew to the desert where he lived a simple and austere life. He did not accept gifts of food; nor did he accept the invitations he must have received to eat with those he baptised and who wanted to learn more. He dressed in a rough and uncomfortable garment of camelhair, held at the waist with a simple leather belt. With the long hair and beard of a Holy Man, he must have cut quite a figure – probably more interesting than attractive.
In our world, we tend to associate the ‘packaging’ of an individual or message as negative or false – the way an advertising company creates a ‘brand’ for the product they are selling. For John the Baptist nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it was his obvious authenticity and sincerity that brought the crowds to see him.
His message was a forceful and uncompromising one. It probably fitted with his austerity that he would be outspoken and abrasive. He made no attempt to be diplomatic when he spoke, and he took no prisoners with the words he chose.
In today’s Gospel he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him a “brood of vipers” and warned them that their time was short; that “their retribution was coming.” Many of those listening to him would, no doubt, smile in agreement, glad that someone had the courage to say what they were too afraid to say.
Yet, despite John’s gruffness and outspoken honesty – or maybe because of it! – he was a popular figure, drawing crowds from, “Jerusalem, all Judaea and the whole Jordan district.” Not only that, but an amazing cross section of society came to hear him. In this Gospel it is the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him. Elsewhere, we are told that tax-collectors and even some Roman Soldiers came to hear him.
When they lined up for Baptism, John did not offer them vague generalisations about living a better life or trying harder to be good. No! John called them out, publicly and loudly, on their own particular sins.
With the Pharisees and Sadducees his focus was on their hypocrisy and pride: “Brood of vipers, just because you are a priest, a son of Abraham, don’t dare think that you are guaranteed a place in God’s Kingdom, because you are not.”
When tax collectors asked him what they must do to enter the Kingdom, John had no hesitation in saying to them what everyone listening knew to be true, “Collect only fair taxes. Do not take more than you are entitled to.”
Did he fear the Roman soldiers, like everyone else did? No again, to them he said, “Do not take money from anybody by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.”
There is little doubt in my mind that Jesus, and some of his apostles, were, for a time, disciples of John. When Jesus did begin his own ministry, his message was almost identical to that of John, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is close.” Jesus was himself baptised by John, and when John died, we know that Jesus was devastated by the death of his friend and spoke of him in glowing terms. There is also evidence in the Gospels that during Jesus’ early ministry, his followers, and possibility even himself, baptised people as John did.
When the day came for John to proclaim Jesus as the ‘Chosen One’ and the ‘awaited One’, he did not shirk his responsibility. “He most increase and I most decrease”, he said openly and plainly.
We often imagine that the handover, after that, was a quick and smooth. Unfortunately, nothing in life is as smooth as that, and there is plenty of evidence in the Gospels that John continued to have doubts about Jesus right up to own death at the hand of Herod.
The lifestyles of John and Jesus could hardly have been more different, and there is no doubt that the lifestyle of Jesus worried John.
Jesus ate and drank, attended weddings and accepted invitations to dinner. “Would the Messiah do this?” John wondered. So worried was he, in fact, that when he was in prison, he sent messengers to Jesus asking him plainly, “Are you the Messiah or must we look for another?” John, we note, is still plain-spoken and direct, while the answer of Jesus is, perhaps, a bit more cryptic, “Tell John what you see and hear…” he said, “…the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, devils are cast out…” I can almost hear John pound the bars of his cell shouting, “…Why couldn’t he answer the damn question!”
We also know from the Gospels that disciples of John continued his work of Baptism long after his death. In the Acts of the Apostles, we come across a group of the followers of John the Baptist, who, twenty years later, are still holding to his teachings and practising his baptism.
In the person of John, we meet the person chosen by God to introduce Jesus to the world.
We, in our turn, are today chosen to introduce God to our world. During Advent, in a special way, we are asked to prepare ourselves to celebrate the birth of Jesus by making our lives more Jesus-like.
“Repent and be baptized….,” John called, “… because the Kingdom of God is near.”
Whatever about needing baptism, we all do need ‘to repent’ – all of us do.
I’m sure many parents are in the process, at the moment, of writing letters to Santa. When finished your children’s letters, write one for yourself:
“Dear Santa, this year please bring me a new and more forgiving heart.”
Santa has, as we all know, a ‘naughty and nice’ list. God does not. What we ask for, we will get. So, ask with the same sincerity, frankness, and plainness of John the Baptist, and on Christmas morning, not under the tree, but beating in your chest, will be a new and repentant heart.
The one who follows me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire
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Tags: gospel reflection
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