John the Baptist is often referred to as the Precursor, the one who prepares the way for another. He understood himself this way and continually pointed eyes and hearts towards “the one greater than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not even worthy to untie” (Lk 3:16), saying that “he must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). Through his many years in the solitude and silence of the desert, devoted to prayer and contemplation of God’s revelation of himself in the history of Israel, and acquainting himself with the divine Wisdom who was at work in all things, John was surely prepared to be a humble and transparent messenger. He was perpared to be a man who would direct the people, not to himself in pride, presumption, or self-reference, but to the One whose coming he announced, in the humility that rejoices in others knowing this One, and in the love that ardently desires to know him, to know the true Messiah, along with those to whom John himself was sent as the Messiah’s precursor. John himself indicates his joy in being the preparer of the Lord’s path, in being, to use his term, “the friend of the bridegroom,” who would prepare the bride to be entrusted to her one husband. He found his joy in preparing the Bride’s heart for the gift of her true Beloved, and in giving her to him, while he himself, certainly, took his place within the Bride in welcoming the Bridegroom as well. Thus the precursor, the friend of the Bridegroom, in accepting and acknowledging him, steps into the position of the Bride, sharing in her faith and being incorporated into her, into the Church, in whom John too finds a home as one of the first saints of the New Covenant. He says: “He who has the bride is the Bridegroom; the friend of the Bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the Bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:29-30).
How beautifully we see here the same mystery that we spoke of in reference to the Holy Family: the mystery of entrustment. Both Joseph and John are radiant incarnations of the masculine love that responds generously, tenderly, and responsibly to the persons entrusted into its care, and prepares space in the hearts and lives of others for the ever deeper coming of the one Bridegroom, Christ. Indeed, they lived to the full the love that enfolds, encircles, and protects others in the sacred mystery of their communion with God, as Joseph enfolded Mary and Jesus in the sanctuary of the home of Nazareth, and as John reverenced the sacred pathway of human hearts that God approached so delicately as he drew near to his expectant people in Jesus Christ.
But let us now return to the three points we said we would address at the end of the last reflection. First, John was the one who prepared the path of the Lord in the desert, according to the promise of Isaiah, and thus heralded the present fulfillment of the hopes and expectations of Israel for her Messiah. This text from Isaiah is indeed significant for a number of reasons. In particular, it lies at the start of the so-called “Book of Consolation” in chapter 40, a major turning point in Isaiah’s prophecies. At the point in the text, the period of warning and punishment gives way to promises of healing and consolation, and indeed climaxes in the promise of the “Servant of the Lord” who will redeem the people through his suffering and ultimately give birth to the new heavens and the new earth, to the new creation born of his saving love. The book of Isaiah, in fact, has been called by Fathers of the Church “the first Gospel,” since the countours of the face of Jesus Christ appear so vividly upon its pages, and the nature of his redeeming work is expressed, in certain places, with almost as much explicit clarity as we find in the writings of the apostles. Having not yet found concrete fulfillment in the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, however, this image is blurry, expectant, awaiting the clarity that would come, not through prophetic insight or rational deduction, but only through the utter realism of historical event.
And at the start of this transition point into the realism of history, the fulfillment for which the prophecies had prepared, stands the figure of John the Baptist. As Isaiah writes:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Is 40:1-5)
The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it. And this shall be the case because he himself comes, comes upon the path prepared for him, in which pride is humbled and weakness is lifted up, roughness is leveled and all is made accessible to his approach. Yes, he comes to us in the desert, where all human calculations and conditions, all strife and comparison and status is leveled, and we all stand poor and defenseless before the One who approaches. This is exactly what John has done, in leading the people of Israel out to the Jordan in the desert, and inviting them to repent of their sins and receive baptism as a sign of this repentance. In repentance we are all equal; we all acknowledge that we have no “rights” before God, no claim to anything as our own. Indeed, we acknowledge that we are infidelity indebted, since nothing that we ourselves can do can make up for the debt of our sins and the hurt that they cause to the heart of God, nothing we do, alone, can restore the relationship he desires to have with us nor our relationships with one another. We stand before him, in other words, in the debt of creatures who owe their very existence to the creative love of God as well as in the debt of sinners who do not even have a right to ask for mercy, and certainly have no claim on justice.
But we repent nonetheless. Thus John’s invitation to repentance is imbued with hope, for the very act of repentance presupposes that God has already touched the sinful heart and stirred in it the hope of forgiveness, reconciliation, and new life. This is a new life, a life of reconcilation with God and of righteousness before him, which we cannot claim as our own nor expect from him, but which comes as a free gift if only we return to him with our whole heart, and surrender ourselves back to him again. John stands right on the cusp of this gift, preparing hearts to acknowledge their sins and convert their lives (metanoia—to change one’s very mental/spiritual orientation, in other words, the very direction of one’s entire life). And yet John himself cannot give this forgiveness, this reconciliation, this newness of life. Such a gift can only come from God, the one who is offended in every sin and who himself has created every human person. He holds in his hands the entire universe, and when the fabric of this universe is torn asunder by sin, he alone has the ability to weave it together again. John knows this, and thus preaches that his baptism is only a preparation (as we will soon see), a way of getting hearts ready to welcome the true Messiah when he comes, bearing in his hands the gift of new life with God that God himself alone can bring.
The second aspect of John’s witness that we mentioned relates to his being a “new Elijah,” as prophecied by Malachi. Let us look at this prophecy now.
For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse. (Mal 4:1-6)
This is the last chapter of the book of Malachi, and, in certain versions of the Bible, the last verse of the entire Old Testament (depending on the location of the books of Maccabees). It is another cry of promise from the heart of the compassionate God concerning the definitive redemption of his people. It is addressed to the poor and afflicted, to those who strive to be faithful to God but find themselves crushed under the iniquity of those who do evil, and thus it speaks to the true “remnant of Israel” (cf. Is 10:20-22). It speaks of a coming day of judgment when God shall make his sun to rise over humanity, a sun of justice with its healing rays for those open to its light, but a sun that burns and afflicts for those who “prefer darkness to light, because their deeds are evil” (Jn 3:19). Yes, this sun is the one Son, Jesus Christ himself. His very presence is the Light of Love, which is justice upon those who do evil as much as upon those who do good, judgment on those who reject God in their hearts and in their deeds and healing mercy upon those who turn to God and seek him.
And this is exactly what John the Baptist is fostering: readiness for this coming day of judgment! We will see this soon in the content of John’s dialogue with the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to speak with him, but we already glimpse it now in the very prophecy of Malachi and in the manner of John’s preaching and ministry. He is turning the hearts of the people of Israel back to justice and peace, preparing in their hearts the way of the Lord, so that they may experience the presence of Christ, when he comes, as a saving and redeeming presence, and not as condemnation, which is brought upon them by their own preference for darkness and sin.
This is the third aspect that we mentioned. John is an educator in what is means to be authentically open to the gift of redeeming love. He is a guide in what it means to await the advent of Christ. This is why he is taken as a guide for our Advent preparation during the time preceding Christmas each year, filled as this time is also with the renewal of our hope and expectation for Jesus’ second coming, when he shall appear in all his glory to inaugurate the definitive fulfillment of God’s kingdom and bring the entire universe to consummation. John is our guide in awaiting the advent of Christ, the coming of Christ, whether that be in his birth at Christmas-time, or his coming at the end of time, or his coming to us in the unique contours of our lives, here and now. He thus works intimately in our hearts and our existence, along with Mary and Joseph—the other advent saints par excellence—to prepare the way of the Lord, to teach us what is means to let love and longing hollow us out so that God’s name may be hallowed in us. Yes, what John the Baptist prepared for, Mary and Joseph live to the full (and John, of course, eventually follows). They welcome with poor and virginal receptivity the gratuitous outpouring of God’s redeeming and recreating love into this world. They welcome it in their own right as well as on behalf of all. And their acceptance paves the way for many others also to welcome and to know him, the One who comes as a burning sun to illumine all that is in darkness, searching as he ardently is for those whose gaze is turned upwards, and whose hearts are open, to give him a space to enter and to bathe all in the warmth and beauty and light of his healing, consoling, and fulfilling gaze.