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John the Baptizer, the Advent Prophet

December 1, 2014
John the Baptist cropped
Second Sunday of Advent, Year B - December 7, 2014
One of the great stars of the Advent and Christmas stories, John the Baptizer, makes his appearance on the biblical stage today. Let us consider some of the details of John's life and see how he is such a good model for us.
John the Baptist didn’t mince words. He got right to the point and said what needed to be said. He would speak with equally straightforward words to us -- words that would zero in on the weak points of our lives. John the Baptist was a credible preacher of repentance because he had first come to love God's word that he heard in the midst of his own desert.
He heard, experienced and lived God's liberating word in the desert and was thus able to preach it to others so effectively because his life and message were one. One of the most discouraging things we must deal with in our lives is duplicity. How often our words, thoughts and actions are not coherent or one. The true prophets of Israel help us in our struggle against all forms of duplicity.
The desert wilderness
Throughout biblical history, leaders and visionaries have gone to the desert to see more clearly, to listen intently for God's voice, to discover new ways to live. The Hebrew word for wilderness midvar is derived from a Semitic root that means, "to lead flocks or herds to pasture." Eremos, the Greek word used to translate midvar, denotes a desolate and thinly populated area and, in a stricter sense, a wasteland or desert.
The term "wilderness" has two different but related meanings, referring to something judged to be wild and bewildering. It is probably the unknown (bewildering) and uncontrolled (wild) character of the place that earned it the name "wilderness." There is also another way of understanding the meaning of desert or wilderness.
A careful look at the root of the word midvar reveals the word davar meaning "word" or "message." The Hebraic notion of "desert" or "wilderness" is that holy place where God's word is unbound and completely free to be heard, experienced and lived. We go to the desert to hear God's Word, unbound and completely free.
The Spirit of God enabled the prophets to feel with God. They were able to share God's attitudes, God's values, God's feelings, God's emotions. This enabled them to see the events of their time as God saw them and to feel the same way about these events as God felt. They shared God's anger, God's compassion, God's sorrow, God's disappointment, God's revulsion, God's sensitivity for people, and God’s seriousness. Nor did they share these things in the abstract; they shared God's feelings about the concrete events of their time.
John the Baptist is the Advent prophet. His image is often portrayed in the finger pointing to the one who was coming: Jesus Christ. If we are to take on John’s role of preparing the way in today’s world, our lives also will become the pointing fingers of living witnesses who demonstrate that Jesus can be found and that he is near. John gave the people of his time an experience of forgiveness and salvation, knowing full well that he himself was not the Messiah, the one who could save. Do we allow others to have experiences of God, of forgiveness and of salvation?
John the Baptist came to teach us that there is a way out of the darkness and sadness of the world and of the human condition, and that way is Jesus himself. The Messiah comes to save us from the powers of darkness and death, and to put us back on the path of peace and reconciliation so that we might find our way back to God.
The late Jesuit theologian, Father Karl Rahner, once wrote: "We have to listen to the voice of the one calling in the wilderness, even when it confesses: I am not he. You cannot choose not to listen to this voice, 'because it is only the voice of a man.' And, likewise, you cannot lay aside the message of the Church, because the Church is 'not worthy to untie the shoelaces of its Lord who goes on before it.' It is, indeed, still Advent."
We may not have the luxury of traveling to the wilderness of Judah, nor the privilege of a week’s retreat in the Sinai desert this Advent. However, we can certainly carve out a little desert wilderness in the midst of our activity and noise this week. Let us go to that sacred place and allow the Word of God to speak to us, to heal us, to reorient us, and to lead us to the heart of Christ, whose coming we await this Advent.
[The readings for the Second Sunday of Advent are: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; and Mark 1:1-8.]
(Image: Detail of St. John the Baptist from the "Isenheim Altarpiece" by Matthias Grunewald)
This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2008 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is available in book form through our online store.
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