During our Advent observance, various characters appear in order to point our way to the coming of the Lord. Of all these characters, perhaps John the Baptist is the most intriguing. He emerges as, “A voice of one crying out in the desert. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths’” (Mt 3:3). John takes his basic job to announce the arrival of the Messiah. His proclamation includes the need to reform our lives and to look forward to a new way of existence.
John can be a quite forbidding character. He lives in the desert. He wears camel hair clothing with a leather belt. His diet is locusts and honey. He has no use for hypocrisy. For the people who come with genuine repentance, he comforts and baptizes them with water from the Jordan. For the scribes and Pharisees who come only out of curiosity or malice, he has only scorn. These people are a brood of vipers. The scribes and Pharisees live lives of hypocrisy, that is, lies posing as truth. John’s lifestyle and preaching against falsehood can be quite terrifying.
We cannot forget, however, that there is another side to John. He was attracting crowds of common people who found him encouraging and hope-filled. He showed them that the coming Messiah would bring them a new way of living. Even Herod, who ultimately executed him, was attracted to John’s way of speaking about the future. There must have been a gentle side to John that instilled confidence, hope and trust. The message about the coming Messiah showed fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. They longed for one who was about to arrive.
John’s preaching is an excellent backdrop for our own Advent preparations. The church thinks of this season as penitential in the sense that we take this opportunity to recall and repent of our sins. We are invited to be like those crowds that went out into the desert to see, hear and be baptized. In our own context, Advent helps us to step back from the materialism of our culture, to realize that Jesus came in poverty. We also pray for an end to strife in the world.
During this season, we are also cautioned to abandon any hypocrisy in our lives and grow in truthfulness. When we do this, we act like those multitudes baptized by John. We fulfill those words of Paul, “. . . in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6).
For those who repent, then, John’s message is not of terror and fear, but rather of hope and confidence. In the words of Isaiah, “. . . the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea” (Isa 11:9). John announces the coming of the Messiah; we receive that message each year as we celebrate Advent.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.