St. John the Baptist, prophet of Advent and preacher of repentance

On the Readings for December 4, 2016, the Second Sunday of Advent

• Isa 11:1-10
• Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
• Rom 15:4-9
• Mt 3:1-12

If you saw John the Baptist preaching on a street corner, what might you think of him? He would be a wiry man, wild in appearance, bearded and dressed in rough clothing. His message would be direct, but also mysterious: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” He would offer free baptisms and would, from time to time, have less than kind words for various authorities who watched him baptize.

He would be, in today’s terms, a troublemaker, a religious fanatic, a fundamentalist, a narrow-minded zealot.

Jesus, however, told His disciples, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist…” (Matt 11:11). This wasn’t merely the affection of the Savior for His cousin, but a striking assertion of John’s place in salvation history. John the Baptist, like so many of the Old Testament prophets, was contrary and confrontational. He drew attention to things usually passed over in polite society, especially the reality of sin and the need for repentance. He denounced hypocrisy, spiritual sloth, and injustice. And today’s Gospel reading—which contains the first mention of John in Scripture—describes him as the final and greatest forerunner of the Messiah: “A voice of one crying out in the desert…”

In his book The Advent of Salvation, the great biblical scholar, Jean Cardinal Daniélou, wrote, “Since the coming of Christ goes on forever—He is always He who is to come in the world and in the Church—there is always an Advent going on, and this Advent is filled by John the Baptist. It is John the Baptist’s peculiar grace that he prepares the way for what is about to happen.” The Church has long made the connection between John the Baptist and Advent because John perfectly symbolizes—or, better, lives and expresses—the key themes of this season: anticipation, preparation, humility, repentance. His baptism was one of repentance, but he readily acknowledged that it would give way to the baptism of “the Holy Spirit and fire” offered by Jesus.

John, who was filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born, knew that his work was to prepare himself and others for the One who would offer the fullness of the Holy Spirit. “The fire of the Spirit dwells in him,” states the Catechism, “and makes him the forerunner of the coming Lord” (CCC 718). He, like all of the prophets, pointed to the Messiah. And he, like all of God’s faithful, did the bidding of the Savior. But John, the Catechism also points out, was more than a prophet, for “with John the Baptist, the Holy Spirit begins the restoration to man of ‘the divine likeness’” (CCC 720).

Drawing again from modern parlance, we might say that John the Baptist worked himself out of a job. Jesus, having declared the greatness of John, remarks, “yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt 11:11). How so? The greatness of John was in his faithfulness to the call of proclaiming the Son of God. But that does not match the greatness of those who, by grace, have been baptized into the life of the Son of God. They are filled with the divine life of God, made possible by the redemptive work of the Cross. The New Covenant is greater than the Old Covenant, and it establishes the Kingdom of God, which is what John the Baptist and the other prophets anticipated and desired.

The heart of John is revealed beautifully in his statement, found in John’s Gospel, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). That is, I think, a perfect prayer for Advent. It speaks of a heart completely given to the Holy Spirit. It describes the essence of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. It reveals a man who speaks the truth in the wilderness, regardless of what everyone else on the street corner might think of him.  

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About Carl E. Olson 1120 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.