Traditionally the main figures for the season of Advent include Mary, Joseph, and John the Baptist. I’ve written about Mary several times on this blog. And last Advent I wrote about St. Joseph. (You can find it by typing St. Joseph under search in the lower right.) This year I’d like to say a few words about St. John the Baptist who was featured in the Gospels of these past two Sundays.
John the Baptist is not a sweet and cuddly kind of saint. Scripture tells us he lived in the wilderness, wore homemade camel hair clothing, and
ate locusts and wild honey. He’s not exactly the kind of guy you’d invite to your dinner party. In fact, if John were running for a political office, his public relations people would have to do a complete make-over! But John wasn’t a politician; he was a prophet. This means he spoke his mind—or (more accurately) he spoke God’s mind. John called a spade a spade. He called a sin a sin. It was precisely this candor that landed him in prison and eventually cost him his head.
But John had a gentler side. He preached a baptism of repentance. He said no matter what your sin might be, God was ready to forgive you. What a consoling message! Being baptized was your first step toward forgiveness. So powerful was John’s message that crowds flocked to hear his words and to be baptized. Even Jesus showed up one day and asked to be baptized. At first John hesitated, sensing there was something “special” about this man. But he eventually baptized him. John was also humble. He kept saying that a greater one than he was coming who would baptize not with water, but with the Spirit. Later, as John languished alone in his dark, smelly prison cell, he sent some of his disciples to scope out Jesus to see if he was “the one.” His followers came back with the message: “Yes, he is the one.”
What does John have to teach us besides repentance and candor? I mentioned earlier that John ate locusts and wild honey. Fr. George Smiga (who teaches at St. Mary Seminary near me) sees great symbolism in this fact. In scripture, locusts are associated with ruin, upheaval, loss. Says Fr. Smiga, “The notable thing about John the Baptist is that he does not flee from locusts. He eats them!” John calls us to claim the misfortunes that befall us. He calls us to face the truth about our lives and ourselves. So eating locusts represents honesty. Honey, on the other hand, is always associated with God’s word. Throughout scripture God’s word is described as “sweet to the taste.” So the honey symbolizes faith. Fr. Smiga says both foods are necessary for a “complete meal.” We need both honesty and faith. If we have only
honesty, we can easily get discouraged. But faith alone is not enough. “As important as it is to believe that God is with us, we must also claim our brokenness, discouragement, and need, so that we can know who we are and open ourselves to God’s grace.” (Fr. Smiga’s thoughts are taken from Living with Christ, December 2014 issue, published by Bayard, Inc.)
The gospel for the third Sunday of Advent focuses on John the Baptist. The crowds pepper him with questions. Most importantly they want to know who he is. John replies, “I am the voice crying in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord.'” That’s John’s job description. That’s his mission statement. He is preparing the road for the coming of Christ. We might ask ourselves, how are we preparing our hearts for the coming of Jesus? Are we claiming our brokenness and pain? Are we in touch with the sweetness of our faith? Are our preparations for Christmas flowing from love? Do our preparations include opening our hearts (and maybe our appointment calendars and wallets) for those in special need?
We pray: St. John the Baptist, help us honestly to claim our brokenness and to savor the sweetness of the Word of God. By our lives this Advent season may we, like you, “make straight the way of the Lord.”
Does anything about John the Baptist speak to you today?