In the middle two Sundays of Advent we hear a lot about John the Baptist. He is a very important figure in the Bible and in the history of our salvation since he uniquely bridges both the Old and New Testaments. It is not difficult to regard John the Baptist as the very last of the Old Testament Prophets and the picture painted of him in the extract from the Gospel we are presented with today certainly makes him look and sound like one of those prophets of old.
He is very much a man in the model of Ezekiel or Daniel or one of the other rather striking figures we encounter in the Old Testament. John is presented to us as an out of the ordinary kind of person, someone who lives at the very extremes of society but who like the other prophets comes with a very strong and forthright message of repentance urging the people to return to the proper observance of the laws of God.
All the trappings, such as his garment of camel hair and his diet of locusts and wild honey, mark John out as a most extraordinary person. And, although he comes across as rather severe as he proclaims his message, we find that the people respect him for his integrity and they flock to receive Baptism at his hands. The ordinary people clearly recognise that John’s message is an authentic one and that it comes from God.
Although John the Baptist is presented to us much in the same way as the other Old Testament Prophets, we need to realise that he is above all the forerunner of all the New Testament witnesses to Christ. In a real sense he is, apart from Mary, one of the very first followers of Jesus.
We are not sure precisely how much of the actual content of Jesus message John accepts or is even aware of. But this is not so important because his role is to clearly point to Jesus as the Messiah, the one who was foretold. In his pointing out of Jesus and by his instruction to the people to follow Jesus John places himself at the very forefront of the disciples of Christ.
John’s remarks in the text before us addressed to the Jewish leaders are quite scathing. He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a ‘brood of vipers’ because they come to him for Baptism without truly repenting of their sins. He has no truck with these hypocrites and his language towards them is excoriating. He warns them that the Day of Judgement is coming and that on that day they will be answerable for their sins. John seems to equate this Day of Judgement with the actual coming of the Messiah who he says will winnow the wheat from the chaff.
John also suffered a martyr’s death. In this he is like many of the Old Testament Prophets, six of whom were martyred including some of the most important; among them being Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. This theme of martyrdom is, of course, also a hallmark of the New Testament followers of Jesus, for example we know that all of the Apostles died a martyr’s death except John.
When we hear of John’s martyrdom at the hands of King Herod we are not surprised. Now that his role of being a forerunner of the Messiah is complete John the Baptist is able to leave the stage wearing the crown of martyrdom. In a way it is fitting that John dies a martyr’s death since in this he is able to share the same fate as his master Jesus.
It is worth looking at the first reading today since it is a beautiful and rather poetic prediction of the coming of the Messiah taken from the Book of Isaiah. It opens with the line: ‘A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse.’ You will all know that Jesse is the father of King David and you will be equally aware that the Messiah is foretold to come from David’s house and line.
During this season in homes with children you will sometimes find Jesse Trees. These usually show pictures of the various ancestors of Jesus beginning with Jesse and sometimes showing also the various symbols associated with Jesus or other figures from the Old Testament.
Jesse trees can be pasted on to cardboard or made into mobiles or be in the form of pictures hung from a tree branch. They are good reminders of the origins of Jesus and help us to keep in touch with the themes of Advent. They are an excellent activity for children with inquiring minds since they can lead to good conversations about precisely who Jesus is and what he came to achieve.
The prophecy of Isaiah tells us about where the Messiah will spring from and he gives us also a picture of just the kind of Messiah that he will be. This picture is quite different from the one ordinarily held by the Jews of the time who thought that the Messiah would be a conquering hero who would ensure their victory over all the other races.
Actually, what Isaiah presents to us is a Messiah who will usher in a time of peace and harmony. He predicts that in the age to come all those who are presently enemies will live in friendship and peace will flourish. The ‘wolf living with the lamb’ and the ‘calf and the lion cub feeding together’ are very apt representations of the various nations of the world living together amicably.
So according to the Prophet Isaiah, the Messiah is not a warlike figure but rather one who comes to restore justice and to establish peace and tranquillity in the world. In order for us to become part of this new world we would need to seek the forgiveness of our own sins.
You can see the link here with John’s Baptism of repentance, because sorrow for sin is the necessary pre-requisite for peace. Sin has caused division in the human family and it needs to be rooted out. It is only when we have openly acknowledged our sins and expressed true remorse for them that we can live peaceably with others.
In Churches throughout the world people will be coming in large numbers during the season of Advent to confess their sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. They do this in order to be able to celebrate Christmas in a truly spiritual way with their consciences cleansed of sin. But also they confess their sins because they so much want to be part of the Kingdom of God, their deepest desire is to belong to this wonderful new realm ushered in by the Messiah.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket