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First Sunday of Advent: John the Baptist

by Sister Mary Regina Robbins

Preparation for Christmas calls to mind striking personalities from the Old Testament who with great expectation and consistent longing set the stage for the Advent of the Messiah. We marvel at their faith, hope and insight since they are “before Christ” and did not have the benefit of the Incarnation and the Gospel truths as we do today.

One such character, who epitomizes the scripture texts of Advent, is John the Baptist. He is called “the Baptist” to distinguish him from John the Evangelist and to portray him as the one who baptized Jesus in the River Jordan. Usually pictured as a loud, wild-looking and extremely passionate young man, John is the forerunner of Christ. His identity in the opening of Mark’s Gospel (Mk. 1.2) echoes the words of Isaiah: “a messenger…a voice crying in the wilderness.” (Is.40.3). John’s mission is clear: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” In humility he knows who he is in relation to Jesus: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (Mk.1.7). John is strong, single-minded, focused and without compromise in his relationship to God and his life-purpose. Jesus said of him, “There is no greater man than John.”

The son of Zachariah and Elizabeth, John grew up with Jesus and probably went in the family caravan up to Jerusalem the time Jesus was “lost in the temple.” Perhaps at an early age he recognized the specialness of his friend and cousin. We can imagine what these two boys talked about as they took in the world around them and dreamed of something better, sensing they both had a mission!

John responded to the call to give his life to God by joining the Essenes, desert monks. Out in the desert, fasting, living radical detachment from the world of his time, he became a contemplative and then felt compelled to go forth as a prophet, in imitation of the prophets of the Old Testament.

Like all prophets John was painfully conscious of his world environment; he saw the good and the evil. He named sin, called for reform and prepared people to change. John’s message was a call for everyone to be ready for an upside down turn of values and meaning in a world of pride, violence and disregard for the poor. John was a fascinating preacher. Even King Herod liked to hear him, but was also reluctant to follow him and uncomfortable with the truth of his words. At his death by Herod’s command, John’s life purpose was complete. He said of Jesus, “that he may increase and I may decrease.” (Jn.3.30).

As we look at our world today, we see what is not of God, what is blind to the truth. In our own way, we too can be a voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. In our own style, we can be prophets not in the wilderness, but in the market place and neighborhoods. With generosity, gentleness, good example and compassion, we can give hope to the world that the Messiah has come and is among us.

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