The Third Sunday of Advent
Two figures prepare us for the coming of Jesus Christ. They are St. John the Baptist, the “voice crying in the wilderness”, and the Blessed Virgin Mary, through whom the Word was made flesh. These two figures frequently are represented either side of the entrance to the sanctuary in older Church buildings, pointing the way for worshippers to the heart of the faith. Both were of the Royal family of King David. Both chosen before their birth and in accordance with God’s divine plan to restore our participation in the divine relationship that leads to holiness. Both were Hebrews nurtured by the Old Testament Scriptures yet making it possible for the age of the New Testament to begin.
John the Baptist is an unforgettable character, living as an ascetic like the prophet Elijah, dressed in rough clothing and surviving on a crude dessert diet. He had no time for hypocritical religious or civil leaders describing them as a “brood of vipers”. [Matt 3;7] His hard hitting words are not a comfortable message for any audience but when he passes judgement on the legality of the marriage of Herod Antipas to his brother’s wife, he quickly winds up in prison. This is the setting for our reflection. It is a strange exchange between John in prison and Jesus beginning his own mission. John on the brink of death, sends two disciples to Jesus, asking a direct question; “are you the coming One or do we look for another?” The reply is less direct, go look at the evidence, “lame walk, deaf hear, lepers are cleansed, dead are raised and the poor hear the gospel.” Surely this is not suggesting that John was becoming overwhelmed by doubts after all he had witnessed the manifestation of Christ at the baptism far more likely that it was for the benefit of John’s own followers, many of whom would join the apostles.
This exchange was placed by Matthew in the middle of his gospel some twenty or more years after the Resurrection when the mission of the apostles was well under way. In the Gospel itself, Jesus has collected his own group around him and sent them on a first mission, “as sheep among wolves.” [Matt 10;16] They had indeed come up against sharp conflicts that would become a characteristic of following Christ. All the disciples, both during the Lord’s lifetime or after his resurrection, needed to know that however great and unique John the Baptist was, he remains the forerunner and herald. The Crucifixion and trampling of death by Jesus, the Son of God is not a continuation of John’s ministry but a completion of it. There will be no more prophets to prepare the way for the Messiah had already come.v
Thus the ministry of John was crucial for all the disciples of Jesus, especially those who had come from John’s group like Matthias who replaced Judas. He is a crucial figure linking the long history of Hebrew prophets who for centuries had yearned for a new Messianic age with the coming of Jesus Christ.
John’s simple lifestyle in the dessert corresponds to his own no nonsense straightforward message, [Matt 3;3] “Prepare the way of the Lord; make His paths straight.” This message, of John should appeal today, in our modern societies, where living is complicated and confusing and people are increasingly struggling to know the true from the false, a world of misinformation, propaganda and downright lies everywhere. In times past we trusted most teachers especially in higher education, but now they are teaching a new monochrome anthropology at variance with the Judeo-Christian principles that have guided our cultures in the past. Once we trusted news outlets to speak the truth. But now we seem to live at a time when everything is tainted, even political and religious leaders are no longer trusted to tell the plain truth. Social media has contributed hugely to the instability of the world around us and directly upending mental stability among the people, so that not only individual lives but the democracy itself is floundering. Who would not be hoping in these days for a straight message and safe highway through all of this?
Fr. Geoffrey Neal