Advent is the season of the prophets and the Scripture readings of these weeks before Christmas help us to focus our vision and deepen our longing for the Messiah.
In this year’s Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent, the figure of John the Baptist appears once again on the stage of salvation history. John’s whole mission was a preparation for the Messiah’s coming. When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. John, himself, was not the light. He came to testify to the light. He didn’t spend time thinking about his shadow. He just allowed the light to shine on him.
John considered himself to be less than a slave to Jesus, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (John 1:26-27). When John’s own disciples came to him and were troubled about the meaning of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, he answered them confidently: “No one can receive anything except what has been given from above.” John says he is only the friend of the bridegroom, the one who must decrease while his master increases (John 3:27-30). The Baptizer defined his humanity in terms of its limitations.
In one of the most poignant scenes of Luke’s Gospel, John the Baptist is imprisoned by Herod Antipas because of his public rebuke of the tetrarch for his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias (Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14; Luke 3:19). Alone, dejected and near the end of his life, John the Baptist, hailed as the “greatest of all prophets,” had to ask the question, “Are you really the one who is to come?” (Luke 7:19) John probably expected a fiery social reformer to come and bring about the Kingdom, certainly not someone who would associate with the poor, the lame, the blind, outcasts and sinners. Yet Christ comes in the most unexpected ways and often in the most unlikely people.
Jesus invites John to look around and see the works that had already been accomplished in the midst of people. The blind recovered their sight and the lame were walking again. Diseases and illness were healed and all those who were deaf could hear. The Good News was now preached to the poor. That was the greatest wonder of all! This is a great consolation for us. We should never be surprised if we often find ourselves asking the same question – “Is Christian living really worth it?” “Is Jesus really the answer to all the evils and sadness of the world and of our own lives?”
The crowds came to John and asked him, “What should we do?” The Baptist advises no one to leave the world they are in, however ambiguous it may be. Rather he told those with two coats to share one with those who had none. Likewise, those with an abundance of food were to share with the hungry. Tax collectors were told to collect no more than was appointed to them. Soldiers were to rob no one by violence or by false accusation. They were to be content with their wages. What were people to do to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah? To be generous, just, honest, grateful and compassionate (cf. Luke 3:10-14).
John the Baptist’s life and mission reminds us how badly we need a Saviour to save us, in order that we might be all that we are called to be and do all that we have to do to live in the Light. How are we courageous and prophetic in our Christian witness to the Light, who has already come into our world? So often we fail to recognize the one among us who is our True Light.
May John the Baptist give us strength and courage to bear the light to others, and the generosity and ability to rejoice as we wait. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing,” Paul writes in his first letter to the Thessalonians. We can also reverse the order of these two sentences: “Pray without ceasing, so that we will be able to rejoice always.”
In prayer we experience God’s gathering up all of our concerns and hopes into his own infinite love and wisdom, his setting us back on our feet, and his giving us fullness of life and light.
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
CEO, Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation
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 is now available in book form. You can order your copy of “Words Made Flesh: Volume 2, Year B” from the website of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Publications Service.