Today is not the feast day of John the Baptist, but it is a day when the readings at Mass celebrate the person who is often thought of as the last Old Testament prophet and the first prophet of the New Covenant. As it was said of so many of the Old Testament prophets, it was said also of John, “The word of God came to John.” (Lk 3:2) And like so many of his predecessors, John called for the people of Israel to return the their Lord. “Repent [or turn your life around],-for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Mt. 3:2) Or as Luke put it, “He went throughout [the] whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John used the direct language of the prophets, he called the Pharisees and Saducees “You brood of vipers!” He criticized them for relying on their lineage from Abraham. He told them that they needed to repent and show good works as the fruit of their repentance.
But even as he was preaching against the abuse of the old law, John was announcing the new good news. He said, “I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.” (Mt 3:11) Probably, the persons listening to John had no idea what he meant by the “Holy Spirit and fire,” but Matthew knew because Matthew knew Jesus.
One of the incidents of the John the Baptist story that really speaks to me is not contained in Matthew’s gospel, but is rather in Luke. People who wanted to repent (turn their life around) asked John, “What then should we do?” John did not give those people a set of laws as Moses had done. Instead, he told them to share what they had with those who had less. He told the tax collectors not to cheat, and the soldiers to be fair with the people that they came into contact with. (See Lk 3:10-14)
Later, after the people had learned about John, Jesus spoke to them what is recorded in today’s gospel. Jesus said that John was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, indeed greater than anyone who went before him. But turning to the new Covenant, Jesus said that “the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” But he did not say this to demean John, but only to say that the new gospel was greater than the old testament, and since John passed over to the new gospel, he had already achieved the Kingdom of Heaven.
I have always had a special devotion to John the Baptist, I think that it is because my childhood parish was St. John the Baptist, or since it was a French-Canadian parish we actually called it St. Jean-Baptiste, and everybody in town, Irish, French, Italian, Portuguese or whatever, always referred to it as “St. Jean’s,” pronounced like dungarees. I think that I was impressed by him in part because on either side of the sanctuary, behind the choir stalls were huge paintings on one side of John preaching and on the other of John baptizing Jesus. As a young altar boy, I often sat in the choir stalls looking up at one or the other of these two pages. You can see the church at this link.
If you click on this link, you should be able to see a panoramic view of my old church, including the two paintings. I know that this is a little self-indulgent, but if you see it, you will see where I first encountered God, and this may say something about me even almost seventy years later.
We know the Old Testament died with John. But we really have no experience of the Old Testament. All of my encounter with God has been as a follower of Jesus. I know that the Old Testament people yearned for the coming of their anointed one, and that faithful Jews still yearn for that coming. I have been taught and therefore believe that the Christ has come – and gone – at least in the sense that he no longer walks the earth as a human being as you and I do. As a consequence, I long for his return just as the Old Testament Jews and the early Christians did. Am I then in the same situation as the Old Testament people? One answer is to say that since I know that the Christ has already come and saved me – us – my situation is different from theirs. Still, as Advent reminds me, Christ is not here – not in the way that I expect him on the day of the Second Coming. So what then?
St. Bernard says that there are not two comings of Christ but three. The third coming, according to him, is a hidden coming, in time between the first and the last. He says that the middle coming is within ourselves when Jesus comes to us in spirit and power. “At the first [coming], Christ was our redemption; at the last, he will become manifest as out life; but in this middle way he is our rest and our consolation.” In support, he quotes this: “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (Jn 14:23)
St. Bernard goes on to say that we should keep Christ’s words in our hearts. “Let them penetrate deep in the core of your souls and then flow out again in your feelings and the way you behave; because if you feed your soul well it will grow and rejoice.”
So here is a way for us to celebrate Advent: Repent, turn our life around, get ready for the coming of the kingdom of God, keep Christ’s words in our heart and accept the quiet coming of God with rejoicing.