We briefly step out of the “green” of Ordinary Time to celebrate the birth of the last prophet of the Old Testament, St. John the Baptist. In so doing, we not only commemorate a great prophet of history, but we also consider the office of prophet itself, one to which we are summoned by our baptism.
As we consider John the Baptist, we also learn of our own duties as prophets and as those who must be open to the proclamations of those who are appointed prophets to us. Let’s consider four aspects of the life and ministry of St. John the Baptist.
1. His PREPARING PURPOSE – In the first reading today, The Church applies these words of Isaiah to John the Baptist to describe his purpose:
The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. … You are my servant, he said to me, through whom I show my glory … to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth (Isaiah 49:1-6).
The Lord wanted to save His people, to restore and raise them up. But as He had warned in the Book of Malachi, it was necessary to prepare them for the coming of the Messiah, for should He come and find them unprepared, there would be doom.
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. And all the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble. For the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,” says the Lord Almighty.
“So, remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.”
“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and strike the land with doom” (Mal 4:1-6).
In His love, God promised to send an Elijah figure to prepare the people for the great and terrible day of the Lord, so that they could not only endure it but even consider it bright and sunny with its warm and healing rays. John the Baptist was that Elijah figure. Jesus, who came to cast a fire upon the earth (cf Lk 12:49), tells us this truth:
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men [also] attack it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. He who has ears, let him hear (Matt 11:12-15).
In other words, it’s time to get ready. Either the Lord will come to us or we will go to Him. Not wanting us to be lost, God sent Elijah and John the Baptist. He sends the Church. He sends parents, priests, and teachers. The great day of judgment dawns for each of us, and in His love, the Lord sends prophets to prepare us.
2 . His PENITENTIAL PROCLAMATION – John heralded [Jesus’] coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance (Acts 13:24). Matthew reports John’s words: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near! … Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him (Matt 3:1).
At the heart of getting ready to meet God is repentance. In recent decades, some in the Church have soft-peddled the themes of repentance, human sinfulness, and worldliness, but the true prophet cannot prescind from them. God is holy, and the holiest among us are the first to acknowledge that it is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of a living and holy God. He is surely rich in mercy, and the reason for that is that we are sinners.
Repentance is more than a reform of our moral behavior. The Greek word translated here as “repent” is metanoite, which means more literally to come to a new mind, to come to a new way of thinking, to have different and better priorities, to exchange worldly notions for heavenly wisdom.
A true prophet is steeped in God’s Word and the teachings of the Church. A true prophet preaches and announces what God reveals and sees everything else in the light of it. A true prophet summons God’s people to truth that He proclaims, and exposes lies and errors for what they are.
In summoning God’s people to repent, the prophet seeks not only to reform and inform them but also to transform them by God’s grace. If we are transformed, then when God summons us to His presence we will already be adjusted to the temperature of His glory, our eyes will be adjusted to the radiance of His love, and our souls will be conformed to the values of His heavenly kingdom.
Repent! That is, come to whole new mind, a new way of thinking and understanding, a new heart, a new love. Come to a new behavior and a new way to walk that makes “straight paths” for and to the Lord.
3. His PERSISTENT POINTING to Christ – John the Baptist was a kind of rock star in his own time; it is difficult to overestimate his renown. Such fame often leads to megalomania and personal disaster, but John humbly points to Christ: What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. Behold, one is coming after me; I am not worthy to unfasten the sandals of his feet.
It was John who pointed and said, “Look! There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (Jn 1:29)
The true prophet points only to Christ, only to God. John did not look to his own glory or fame, he looked to Jesus. He did not try to figure what it would cost him to follow Jesus, he just looked and pointed to Jesus. If anyone pointed out John’s glory and gifts, he simply pointed to Jesus and said, He must become greater; I must become less (Jn 3:30).
The true prophet is turned toward Christ, looks for Him, and eagerly points to Him.
4. His PRESENT PERSON – John the Baptist was a real person who ministered to the real people of his time in order to get them ready to meet Jesus Christ. Here are two questions to consider:
Who is John the Baptist for you?
The Church certainly has this role of being like John the Baptist in preparing us to meet God. The Church proclaims repentance and points always to Christ. Many scoff at the Church because of her role and because of the gospel. Certain aspects of the gospel go in season and out of season. Yet, though she be a voice as of one crying in the wilderness, still she prophesies: “Repent and believe the Good News. Prepare the way for the Lord. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return. Seek that which is above, rather than the things of earth.” Yes, the Church is surely “The Prophet” for us.
Others such as parents, teachers, and pastors also play this role of John in our life. The Church is not an abstraction, she has members who take up her voice. The first place that most people hear of Jesus is not from a papal encyclical or even the Bible. They hear of Jesus at their mother’s knee, from their father’s voice, from a religious sister, or from a teacher. All these people together say, “This is the way; walk in it.” Yes, John the Baptist is still present in the prophetic ministry of the Church and others.
How are you John the Baptist to others?
Just as you have had the benefit of the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist from others, so are you called to take it up for others. To whom have you witnessed? To whom have you declared, “This is the way; walk in it?” To whom have you have you said, “Repent and believe the Good News?”
When you were baptized you were given the office of prophet. Have you taken up this role? Have others been made ready through you to meet God?
God had John the Baptist long ago; whom does He have now? It looks like you. You are John the Baptist!
Here’s John the Baptist, complete with a British accent!