Pointing to Christ
The Gospel readings for the Sundays of Advent, in both forms of the Roman Rite, feature that great man of the Advent Season, St John the Baptist, the Forerunner, the voice crying in the Wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
St John is one of those great figures we meet in the Scriptures who continues to speak to us today as forcefully and as effectively as they did when they walked this earth. He is a type, a figure, a model, a pattern. He is someone in whom some of the great biblical themes and ideas converge; they take on a name, a face and a voice; and then they re-echo down through the ages. John is the great herald of the Messiah, and a mirror for seeing ourselves. He is the last and greatest of the prophets who proclaims the coming of the Lord, and is the first to announce that the Lord is here.
One striking thing is surely this: just how, from his mother’s womb, he is completely turned towards Christ. His own birth anticipated Christ’s, and so did his death. His whole life’s work, with the silent preparatory years in the desert, was to prepare a people fit for the Lord, and to make straight his path. He was the new Elijah sent to prepare for Christ’s coming. He is his herald, and the last in the line of Israelite prophets, the one in whom hope for the messiah becomes most explicit. Whereas the prophets could only point to the Messiah with their words and their faith, St John could point with his finger at the Lamb of God. And the climax of his mission was to baptise Jesus and so reveal him to Israel and beyond as the Son and Servant of God. He is all prophet, nothing but prophecy. He embodies all that Israel was ultimately about: the coming of the Christ. And more than that, he gives us the meaning of what it is to be human. Christ is the light, the source and centre of the universe and of human history. And we are all called to reflect that light, to turn to that light, and to allow ourselves to diminish so that we can be more that light than not.
This is the great truth John brings every generation. Turn to Christ, look at him, welcome him, “Behold” him. When Herod beheaded John, he thought he had silenced that inconvenient voice for ever. But two thousand years later, it is ringing out around the world, thousands of times every day, every time Mass is celebrated: Behold, the Lamb of God.
St John the Baptist’s mission was to prepare for the first coming of Christ. The Church’s mission, and ours, is to prepare for the second coming — and in fact for any and every coming of Christ into this world. This is why hermits and monks and contemplatives, waiting for God in the wilderness, have always cherished John the Baptist as a special patron. But also why many active Orders in the church — men and women religious who have nursed the sick, served the poor, taught the children — have likewise taken John as their patron. John reminds us to see and point out Christ when he comes to us in those in need, when he is suffering in those who suffer. He reminds us to see and point out how Christ can act in us and through us — how Christ can come into the lives of others through our words and deeds.
John calls us to live while pointing to someone greater than ourselves. To be happy to decrease, to feel poor, to be imprisoned metaphorically or even really, as long as Christ can increase and enrich and act freely around us. To be a voice that only wants to speak what is true, good, and kind, a passing voice at the service of the eternal Word. To prepare the Way of the Lord, and to announce his coming.