John the Baptist has now come onto the liturgical scene.
The Second Sunday of Advent introduced John as the precursor of Him whose arrival we await. Our picture of this enigmatic religious figure is likely shaped by that Gospel passage.
John appeared “in the desert” — hardly a comfortable place in which to dwell.
He was “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” — in stark contrast to the finery and formality of the attire typical of the religious establishment.
He “fed on locusts and wild honey” — foodstuffs that symbolically align the Baptist with prophets who preceded him.
The composite picture we get is that of a rugged individual, living on the outskirts, whose own example rails against the common ways of the world. Add to that his proclamation of “repentance” and we imagine a fire-and-brimstone preacher calling people to change their ways or face the doom of destruction at the coming of the Mighty One.
Perhaps it’s time to re-think the fulminating figure that seems to be John the Baptist.
Mark’s Gospel links John to a familiar reference from the prophet Isaiah. The Baptist assumes the mantle of the “messenger” sent ahead of the Messiah, the “voice of one crying in the desert,” whose message is to “prepare the way of the Lord.”
Notwithstanding the misplaced modifier (in Isaiah, the desert is where the way is prepared, not where the voice cries out), the short quotation misses out on the prophet’s fuller message.
Isaiah does cry out, but with an oracle meant to bring “comfort” in “speak(ing) tenderly” to God’s people. Moreover, the words that follow his proclamation of the Lord’s coming revelation make it clear that this message conveys “glad tidings” and “good news.”
What is that message? “Here is your God!” says Isaiah, a God who “comes with power” and “rules by his strong arm.” But a close reading teaches what this God will do with that powerful, strong arm. “He gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.”
Linking Isaiah to John, as the Gospel does, we can see the Baptist’s proclamation as less the ranting and raving of a strange ascetic and more a call to repentance that indicates also what such repentance entails.
On the one hand, John proclaims the need for humility. He personally acknowledges, “I am not worthy” in comparison to the “mightier” One who “is coming after me.” In truth, none of us is.
On the other hand, John points out who that One is. “Here is your God!” — the one foretold by Isaiah — recognizable in Jesus, the one whose coming public ministry will demonstrate the “power” of God’s mercy and whose passion will bring the reward of redemption to all when he stretches out His “strong arm(s)” on the cross. “It is the Lord” whom the disciples will later recognize when they see Him risen from the dead.
For we who have been living in a wilderness of sorts — with endless COVID restrictions, continued bellowing about election results, and a steady stream of news about violence in the streets — John the Baptist’s proclamation echoes the “glad tidings” and “good news” of Isaiah: Here is your God!
That message includes no cry for greater religious zealotry. It beckons no claim for harsher penitential discipline. It seeks not to induce fear in the face of impending damnation.
Rather, the twinned message of Isaiah and John announces what St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) purportedly wrote in a popular maxim: “Nothing is so strong as gentleness, nothing so gentle as real strength.” Nothing is so strong as God’s gentle mercy; nothing so gentle as God’s real strength in caring for us.
To prepare for God’s coming in Jesus, Advent invites us to hear John the Baptist and to acknowledge, as he did, that we are not worthy, by confessing that we are sinners.
But Advent also calls us to listen to Isaiah, in the recognition that the Messiah who is coming is, indeed, already here. He comes in meekness, as a newborn child at Christmas. He comes with gentle power, in the outstretched arms of God’s steadfast kindness. This, indeed, is the glad tidings of this sacred season.
It’s also a call to conversion. Living humbly and gently is not the usual way in today’s world. But it does offer an effective antidote to the outrage around us and within us, because it enables us to experience God-with-us, the very Emmanuel whose coming gives joy to our Advent.
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Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S., is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Malvern.
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