We briefly step out of the “green” of Ordinary Time (tempus per annum) to celebrate the birth of the great and last Prophet of the Old Testament, St. John the Baptist. And in so doing, we do not only commemorate a great prophet of history, but we also consider the office of prophet, an office to which we are summoned by our baptism.
Therefore as we consider John the Baptist, we also learn of ourselves in terms of our duties both as a prophet and also as one who must be open the proclamation of those who are appointed prophets to us. Lets consider four aspects of the life and ministry of 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)
So, the Lord wants to save his people, he wants to restore and raise us up. But, as he had warned in the Book of Malachi, it was necessary to prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah. For should he come, and they be 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 will come and strike the land with doom.” (Mal 4:1-6)
God therefore, in His love, promised to send an Elijah figure to prepare the people, for the Great and Terrible day of the Lord, so that they could endure it and even consider it bright and sunny in its warm and healing rays. John the Baptist was that Elijah figure. And Jesus, who had come to cast a fire on the earth (cf Lk 12:49) tells us this very truth of John the Baptist:
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, time to get ready. Either the Lord will come to us or we will go to him. And the Lord, not wanting us to be lost, sends Elijah, sends John the Baptist, sends the Church, sends parents, priests, teachers and many prophets to prepare us. The great day of judgement dawns for each of us, the Lord in his love sends prophets to prepare us.
2. His PENITENTIAL PROCLAMATION. The second reading today says of St. John the Baptist: John heralded [Jesus’] coming by proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Matthew reports John’s words as being Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near!….Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.(Matt 3:1).
So at the heart of getting ready to meet God is repentance. In recent decades there have been some in the Church who have wanted to soft-peddle themes of repentance and frank discussion of human sinfulness and worldliness. But the true prophet cannot prescind from this basic theme. God is very 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. God is surely rich in mercy, but there is a reason for that: we are sinners.
To be sure, 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, a new way of thinking, to have different and better priorities, to exchange worldly notions for heavenly wisdom.
Therefore a true prophet will be steeped in God’s Word, and the teachings of the Church. A true prophet will preach and announce what God reveals and see everything else in the light of it. A true prophet will summon God’s people to truth that God proclaims, and will expose lies and errors for what they are.
In summoning God’s people to repent therefore the prophet seeks not only to reform, or inform God’s people, but to transform them by God’s grace. Thus, when God summons us to his presence we will already be well 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, and thus, 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 underestimate his renown. Such fame is usually the recipe for megalomania and personal disaster. But John humbly points to Christ: What 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 had 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 look to bottom line and try and figure what it would cost him to follow Jesus, he just looked and pointed. And if anyone did note 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 – Note that John the Baptist was a real person who ministered to real people of his time in order to get them ready to meet Jesus Christ. Therefore two questions come to mind:
1. Who is John the Baptist for you? Surely the Church has this role to be like John the Baptist preparing us to meet God. The Church proclaims repentance points always to Christ. Many scoff at the Church on account of her role, and the gospel and 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 have also had this role John in our life. For the Church is not an abstraction, the Church has members who take up her voice. And thus, for many the first place they hear of Jesus is not in a Papal encyclical or even in the bible. They of Jesus at their mother’s knee, from their father’s voice, from a religious sister, or teacher. And together they say, “this is the way, walk in it.”
Yes, John the Baptist is still present in the prophetic ministry of the Church and others.
2. How are you John the Baptist to others? Just as you have had 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 have you have you said, “Repent and believe in the Good News?”
When you were baptized your were given the office of prophet. Have you taken up this role? Have others been made ready through you to meet God?
Think about it? God had John the Baptist, who does He have now. It looks like you. You are John the Baptist!
So here’s John the Baptist with a British accent 🙂