In the Second and Third Sundays of Advent we encounter the person of Saint John the Baptist. He is an important figure in the New Testament and therefore in the history of our salvation as he is the herald of continuity between the Old and New Testaments.
He is very much a man in the model of the prophetic tradition of Israel, reminiscent of Jeremiah, Ezekiel and especially Elijah or any striking figures we encounter in the Old Testament. St. John the Baptist is revealed to us as a real though mysterious person, one who is outside of the mainstream but who like the other prophets comes with the urgent message of repentance, proclaiming to those who will hear him, a conversion to new effort in the observance of the laws of the Lord God
His message does not suit the ears of the unjust and lukewarm, yet as he proclaims his message of truth, inspired by the Holy Spirit, his hearers respect him for his authenticity and many with enthusiasm ask to receive the baptism of repentance at his hands. A sure indication that the people believed he was a messenger of the Lord.
St John the Baptist points to Jesus, the one foretold by the prophetic tradition. The Messianic age has begun, the mission of the Lord Jesus will surpass John. Jesus will increase John will decrease. In his pointing out the Lord Jesus and by his instruction to the people to follow the Lord Jesus, John proclaims himself a disciple of Christ.
St John's words addressed to the Jewish leaders are to say the least a challenge. He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a 'brood of vipers' because they come to him for baptism without truly repenting of their sins. He cannot abide their objective hypocrisy. He warns them that the Day of Judgement is coming and that on that day they will be answerable for their sins. We can also apply this warning to ourselves. If such attitudes dwell in our hearts, you and I need extreme caution in every casting a critical eye towards the duplicity of Pharisees and Scribes, lest we become what we condemn.
We learn of the martyrdom of the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. John is put to death for his prophetic insistence on the dignity of marriage. He condemns the sin and hypocrisy of Herod’s incestuous marriage. 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 Lord and Master.
The first reading of the Mass proclaims a lyrical prediction of the coming of the Messiah taken from the Book of Isaiah: 'A shoot springs from the stock of Jesse. ‘Jesse is the father of King David. The Messiah is foretold to come from David's lineage. The prophecy of Isaiah tells reveals where the Messiah will spring from and paints a picture of what kind of Messiah that He will be. This portrait is quite different from the one held by the people of the time who thought that the Messiah would be a conquering hero, ensuring political and military victory over all the other nations. Isaiah presents a Messiah who will usher in a time of peace and harmony. He proposes that in the age to come all those who are presently enemies will live in friendship. The 'wolf living with the lamb' and the 'calf and the lion cub feeding together' are representations of the various nations of the world living together in peace.
For Isaiah then, the Messiah is not a warrior figure, but rather One who comes to restore justice and to establish peace and tranquillity in the world. To become part of this new world we would need to seek the forgiveness of our own sins. We link the link baptism of repentance with the acceptance of the Messiah, because sorrow for sin is the necessary pre-requisite for peace. Sin has caused disaster, division and deceit in the human heart 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. The sacraments of Initiation and the sacrament of penance root our lives in this direction.
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 Penance. This encounter with Christ enables a celebration of Christmas in a truly spiritual way with consciences cleansed of sin and hearts open to receive the Word of God. May God who has begun His good work in us bring it to fulfilment.