Opening the Word: Hearing the Baptist’s cry


It’s hard to appreciate the intensity of John the Baptist. His clothing is that of an ancient prophet like Elijah. His diet is ascetic. He has taken up residence in the desert, the place where Israel first learned to love God, preaching conversion.

The conversion that he preaches is more than an occasion to become a better person, even the best version of one’s self.

The Baptist quotes from the prophet Isaiah, who was exhorting the sons and daughters of Israel to return from their exile in Babylon. The desert will become a superhighway, where all humankind will return to Jerusalem to adore the living God.

The promise of a return is understood according to Isaiah as the beginning of the end of history. For it won’t only be Israel returning to Jerusalem. Every nation will come to adore the one God at the foot of Mount Zion. Peace and justice shall reign, love and mercy shall kiss.

The Baptist, therefore, is not just performing some pious religious practice in his desert baptisms. He castigates Pharisees and Sadducees because they seem to have approached this baptism as religious tourists. If everyone is heading out to the desert, experiencing this call to conversion, then maybe we should, too!

But the Baptist cautions against such religious sightseeing. You see, this baptism is inviting one to conversion. Is one willing to believe that God’s kingdom has come?

The reference to Jesus’ baptism points toward the arrival of this kingdom. The Baptist does not name Jesus but speaks of the mightier one, who will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire.

Likely, we’ve grown used to this image of the fiery descent of the Spirit. But the fire is that which cleanses, burns and even destroys. All our pleasant pieties, our religious niceties will burn in the baptism that Jesus delivers.

If we hear the Baptist’s cry as an interlude preceding our Christmas celebrations, we better think again.

The voice that cries out in the wilderness is directed today to us! It is directed toward us Christians preparing to celebrate the birth of Our Lord.

We Christians cannot understand ourselves as religious tourists, enjoying a nice Mass and family meal on a Sunday before returning to the workaday world.

When the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, when the enfleshed Word was hung upon the tree, when Our Lord rose from the dead, everything changed.

God’s definitive judgment of history has come.

The voice of the Baptist still cries out to us.

We hear it in the Scriptures, as we stand to listen to the voice of our Lord in the Gospels.

We hear it when those denied human dignity cry out for mercy from a polis more interested in constructing luxury condos and winning ideological battles with imagined enemies than caring for the poor and downtrodden.

We hear it when we encounter Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, beholding the Lamb of God, who comes to take away the sins of the world.

We hear it when we venerate the bones of the martyrs, who are witnesses to the coming kingdom whose constitution is love unto the end.

The voice of the Baptist pierces through the ages, demanding more of the Church than we often imagine. We’re not playing a pious game of respectable religion, keeping peace with our neighbors.

Instead, we’re the heirs of a coming kingdom. This kingdom is inaugurated not through a pompous parade in Washington, D.C., but in the birth of a hidden child, unknown to the world, in a manger in Bethlehem.

Prepare the way.

Dec. 8 — Second Sunday of Advent

Is 11:1-10
Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
Rom 15:4-9
Mt 3:1-12

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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