“There hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist.” (Matthew 11:11)
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaias the prophet: Behold I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare the way before thee. A voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. John was in the desert baptizing, and preaching the baptism of penance, unto remission of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all they of Jerusalem, and were baptized by him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and he ate locusts and wild honey. (Mark 1:1-6)
I am ashamed to admit that St. John the Baptist was not a saint who appealed much to me when I was a child. This wild-looking man from my much treasured “Bible in Pictures”, dressed only in a camel-hair garment, who lived alone in the desert on locusts (ugh!) and wild honey, seemed to portray to me some sort of eccentric, rather than a holy saint. How very naïve I was in those days! John the Baptist is indeed, the greatest of saints, and I hope he will forgive me my earlier misguided opinion of him.
John the Baptist was the first disciple of Jesus Christ. While both John and Jesus are still unborn infants, John “leaps for joy” in his mother Elisabeth’s womb when the Virgin Mary, carrying the tiny infant Jesus, Son of God, in her womb, enters into their home. John recognises his Saviour months before either infant has yet seen the light of day. How beautiful and how miraculous! A sure lesson to mankind that human life begins at the moment of conception.
John the Baptist was born of elderly parents, St. Elisabeth and St. Zachariah. They were good, patient, law-abiding people, who had given up hope of ever having a child of their own until the angel’s revelation to Zachariah announced to him that they were to have a son who would be called John (meaning “God is gracious”). This child of theirs was to be the one who would “pave the way” for the Messiah. John was this chosen one who would prepare the people, urging them to repent of their sins, baptizing them, and teaching them the meaning of the Scriptures, in readiness for the coming of the Saviour they had been waiting for so longingly for so many years and who was now at hand. John himself needed preparation for this important mission, and for many years before his public ministry he lived an ascetic life of strict self-discipline, solitude, abstinence and prayer. To be sincere and convincing one must ‘practice what one preaches’, and many adhered to John’s teachings because he himself was a living example of this fidelity.
And so for us too, Advent is a time of renewal; a time to prepare ourselves for the great event of the Nativity of the King of Kings. In a homily on EWTN, Archbishop Timothy Dolan claimed that Advent points us towards seeking four special qualities: Humility, Repentance, Christ-centredness and Integrity of Life. These qualities are perfectly exemplified in St. John the Baptist.
Humility – the favourite virtue of Our Blessed Lord who was humility itself – is very proper of this season of Advent. St. Paul reminds us: “He emptied Himself of His Divinity and took the condition of a slave.” Jesus came to redeem us from the effects of Original Sin, the root of which is the sin of Pride. Our pride wants us to be independent and self-sufficient, but John the Baptist shows us that the beginning of discipleship is humbly recognising our sinfulness, our helplessness and our absolute need for a Saviour. John says:
“I must decrease so He can increase.”
“I’m not even worthy to untie the strap of His sandals.”
“Lord, it is I who should be baptized by You.”
Repentance flows from Humility. Before we can turn to Jesus, John knew we had to repent, to “make straight the paths of the Lord”, removing the ‘boulders’ or obstacles in the way. This means to turn away from sin. We need to eliminate from our lives anything that ‘dominates’ us or leads us away from a virtuous life, so we can welcome the Dominus, the Lord. That is why there is a penitential hint to this beautiful season of Advent. We need to prepare ourselves, cleansing our souls by making a good Confession sometime during this period, so that we can welcome the Emmanuel (God with us) into our hearts at Christmas.
Christ must be the centre of our lives. John’s entire ministry was to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. When John spots Jesus coming out of the desert he cries out to his followers as he points to Our Lord: “Look, behold the Lamb of God!” From now on Jesus can take over. Here before their eyes is the One he has been promising them: the long awaited Messiah. John had fulfilled his mission: he had predisposed the people to recognise and follow the “Lamb of God”, Jesus Christ.
John’s words are a lesson for all Christians; we too should point out Christ to others by having a Christlike behaviour, an integrity of life, which is John the Baptist’s fourth lesson to us at Advent.
Integrity of Life
John shows us the power of conviction, principle and honesty. John didn’t waver even when his life was in danger. He told the truth to Herod and the mother of Salome, and this literally cost him his head. In this time of lies and complacency, and of blaming others for our flaws, how much we need the rock-like integrity and courage of men like John the Baptist. He never feared the criticism of others when speaking out the truth; nor did he ever waffle or compromise in the face of very real danger. (Bl. Pope John Paul II said we must tell the truth with love. Sometimes this can be a way to really show we love someone!) We should never fear to live our Faith fully and with integrity no matter how hostile or difficult the circumstances.
These four lessons of this giant of a saint help to prepare us for the feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, Our Saviour. Then, with clear consciences and hearts full of joy, we can cry out: “Veni, veni O Emmanuel.”