John the Baptist's Message and Way of Life
(Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the Second Sunday in Advent and in the gospel passage John the Baptist makes his first appearance. John was in many ways a rather forbidding and fierce character but his message of repentance gained its authority from the fact that he himself lived an austere and repentant way of life in the desert. John's words and his way of life, extreme as they were, are still relevant to anyone who wants to genuinely know and experience God.
A Prayer over the Advent Wreath
Lord God, your Church joyfully awaits the coming of its Saviour, who enlightens our hearts and dispels the darkness of ignorance and sin. Pour forth your blessings upon us as we light the candles of this wreath; may their light reflect the splendour of Christ, who is Lord, for ever and ever. Amen.
This Sunday the emphasis in the readings shifts away from the second coming of Christ, at the end of time, onto Jesus' first coming and the events leading up to that. A large part of that is that the figure of John the Baptist moves into the foreground.
When you add up all the references to John the Baptist in the gospels they don't come to much. The only things we learn about him is what the authors of the gospels consider to be important. We don't get any information about John's childhood or his early life, but it's safe to assume, I think, that as a young man John became very conscious of the fact that he had a special vocation from God.
At some point before the gospel writers mention him, he must have sensed that his relationship with God was driving him to embrace an unusual and extreme way of life: to go and live on his own in the desert, and not only to give up any kind of luxuries, but to do without even the ordinary level of human company, to have no possessions at all except the clothes he wore, and to survive on whatever food he could find.
John was someone, in other words, who felt called to live in solitude and extreme simplicity so that he could concentrate totally on his relationship with God and pursue a closer communion with God.
But as we also saw in the gospel passage, John was called by God to do more than just live in obscurity in the Judean desert. In his solitude and prayer in the wilderness John sensed somehow - or it was made known to him - that the time for the coming of the Messiah was drawing near. And so at a certain point he emerged from the desert to announce the imminent arrival of the Messiah to the people of Judea, and he summoned them to prepare for this event by repenting and by reforming their lives while there was still time.
For most of the people John preached to, life was a hard enough struggle already, without this rather bizarre figure appearing from nowhere and telling them that they all needed to ask God's forgiveness for all their sins and shortcomings.
But the ordinary people at that time took his fierce and accusatory message seriously and welcomed it, because they recognised John's special calling. John was able to speak with great moral authority about doing penance because the austerity of his own way of life was so obvious. He himself was living a lifestyle of repentance, in a way that nobody could criticise.
It's John's lifestyle and his message, taken together, that give him a moral authority and a relevance for us, now. Very few Christians, I would argue, are genuinely called to the extreme form of poverty and renunciation that John was. We don't all have to go and live on our own in the desert.
But at the same time I think Christian life has to include these two basic elements of John's spirituality, or else it's missing something essential.
First of all, it has to include the aspect of simplicity - doing away with possessions and material comforts to a certain extent so as to clear the way for God.
The tendency in the Church today, very often, is to think that faith in God doesn't really demand very much of us. As Christians we can have the same way of life and the same values that everyone else has in our society. A lot of the discussion about 'modernising' in the Church is really a code for accommodating and compromising with the values of consumer capitalism, rather than remaining faithful to our alternative way of life, and our alternative Christian vision of what constitutes genuine human fulfilment.
The example of John the Baptist doesn't let us lose sight of that. It doesn't let us lose sight of the fact that for the person who is genuinely seeking God, the trappings of comfort and wealth and social prestige become irrelevant to a large extent, or else they're abandoned because they become obstacles. And as I said, although we're not asked to imitate John's extreme example, we do always have to be asking ourselves how far we can approximate to that mentality of detachment and simplicity in relation to money, possessions, comfort and so on.
Then there's the second aspect of John's ministry, his message of repentance: the idea that we need to acknowledge our shortcomings and our sinfulness in order to face God honestly.
I don't think myself that a preoccupation with sin and guilt should ever be the dominant note in the Christian faith. But again, I don't think that's the main danger in the Church at the moment. The tendency in the Church today - reacting no doubt to the excesses of fear and guilt that were so much a part of Catholicism in the past - is to err more on the side of presumption.
We reach the conclusion a bit too speedily that we're okay as we are, that we don't really need much in the way of reform, that God is loving and lets us away with anything. The idea that we all need to take stock and stand in front of God with a bit of humility, because we're far from perfect, is often lacking in modern religion. And again, the figure of John the Baptist appears, to challenge complacency and encourage a bit of self-criticism, discipline and effort.
Those are some of the ways that John's message and his spirituality are relevant for us now. I don't think it's up to any individual to expose other people's faults and call other people to repentance.
But we do have to find ways of working this principle of repentance into the life of the whole Church - holding up a mirror to ourselves, keeping ourselves sensitive to the genuine signs of God's presence in our lives, and becoming more aware of the demands it makes on us as we try to make progress in living our vocation as disciples of Christ.
That's how we can best respond in the circumstances of our own time, both to John's preaching, and to the example of his way of life.