The messenger before the Messiah

By Fr. Jack Treloar, SJ | For The Compass | December 7, 2016

All three annual cycles for the Sunday readings reserve the Third Sunday of Advent for a narration about John the Baptist. This week we have a reflection on John after he was imprisoned by Herod and before his martyrdom.

John sends some of his disciples to Jesus to ask whether he is the one to come or should they look for another. Jesus responds by quoting verses from the prophet Isaiah indicating that his works indicate the time of salvation. In other words, John and his disciples need look no further for the Messiah.

It is good during Advent to ponder John the Baptist as the one who announces the coming of the Messiah.

A superficial examination of John gives the impression that he is a forbidding character. He lived in the desert. He wore animal skins as clothing. He ate locusts and honey. Although he preached repentance, he still baptized sinners who were willing to repent. Since he is in prison in this week’s Gospel reading, we know that he had conflicts with the authorities. Ultimately he will be beheaded by these authorities.

This forbidding picture, however, is only half of the story. There must have been something very attractive about John and his message, for he had disciples. One does not become a disciple, if the teacher only preaches doom and destruction. Even Herod, who imprisoned John, enjoyed listening to him.

In addition, we know that John understood his place in the story of salvation. He tells his followers that he is not the Messiah. He proclaims that he is unworthy to loosen the sandals of the one who is to come. He is willing to send his disciples off to follow Jesus as in the Gospel according to John and they leave the Baptist to follow Jesus.

The picture of John painted by Jesus in this week’s Gospel emphasizes John’s unique position in the salvation story. He is not a reed shaken in the wind; his words will remain. He is not clothed in rich attire; only the rich and political authorities are dressed in this way. Jesus describes John as a prophet, even more than a prophet. He is the messenger who will go before the one who is to come.

It is entirely appropriate, then, that we celebrate John the Baptist during Advent since he proclaims the coming of the Messiah. Advent is a season of waiting and expectation, and we should find in ourselves John’s attitude of desire for the coming of the Lord.

It is customary to speak of Advent as a triple time of preparation for Christ’s coming. We await and commemorate his historical coming by our preparations for the Christmas celebration. We announce his coming at the end of time to the people of our time. Just as John’s disciples prepared for the coming of the Messiah by repentance for sins, so we take Advent to purify ourselves by personal conversion as we await our Savior.

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.

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