A famous theologian called Von Balthasar wrote some years ago that just as Jesus can only be understood better as God in relation to the Father and the Spirit, so he can only be understood fully as man by the key human relationships of his earthly life. I suppose that’s true of anyone. “Show me your friends and I’ll tell you who you are”, it is said. Among the key relationships of Jesus were Mary, Peter, John the Baptist and John the Beloved Disciple. Von Balthasar calls this network of relationships the “Christ Constellation.” A constellation of stars is a group of visible stars around which you can perceive a pattern of some kind, like Taurus or Scorpio or the Bear. No name is given to the pattern around Jesus but Von Balthasar describes each of these relationships of Jesus as being central to the life of the Church.
Since this Sunday’s Gospel, and Advent more broadly, puts the spotlight on John the Baptist, I thought I would zoom the camera in on this great man. Over the years, I have myself developed quite a good connection with the Baptist, in some periods more intensely than in others. The occasion when I first felt close to him, and woke up to the sheer magnetism of his person, was when leading a retreat for some religious sisters in Zimbabwe, I think it was in Advent 1992. I used the readings of the daily Masses as the basis of my talks and the Baptist featured in many of them. I almost felt him button-hole me to pay more attention to him using those biblical readings.
There are two things I remember most about that. One was that I felt a great sense of being cleansed as I gave the retreat. The Baptist means the Cleanser, you could say, and I felt that he confronted me a bit, as he was wont to do with everyone, about my life and ministry. I remember feeling greatly encouraged, enthralled even, by his attentions as I then perceived them. The second thing was a new awareness, which I attribute to him, that the core of my preaching had to be clear and unambiguous in pointing to Christ, as was the Baptist’s own preaching. It was as if he was saying to me that unless my preaching proclaimed and presented Christ, it was not worthy preaching.
I’m not sure that in subsequent years I have always remained true to the grace of clarity I was then given at the Baptist’s behest, but on reflecting to prepare this evening’s sermon, I realise that it is a grace upon which I can call once more, for the Lord never revokes his gifts.
And so, if I speak about the Baptist this evening, it’s only because of his relationship with Christ, and it is only in order to help you and me better to understand Christ himself.
The first thing is that the Baptist was chosen before he was born to be the precursor of Christ. He was created with the mission to announce and point out the Lamb of God. We know he was born miraculously from elderly parents, solemnly announced by the same Archangel who would announce the conception of Christ to Mary. John and Jesus were linked by Gabriel, and Gabriel only spoke on behalf of God. John is born of older parents, symbolising the miraculous fulfilment of the Old Testament whose glory is to point to the New Testament in the person of Christ born of the young Virgin. So, John’s life was given a singular meaning in God’s plan. He was the last and greatest of the prophets, receiving the baton that had been handed down for over 1,000 years and handing it to Christ, who was the Prophet par excellence because he fulfilled all prophecy.
From the detail in the story of the Visitation that John leapt in the womb on hearing Mary’s voice, we know that he was invested with the Holy Spirit from before he was born. Christ in Mary’s womb gifted John in Elizabeth’s womb with a mini-Pentecost, in anticipation of the mission he would have. We hear nothing more about John in the Gospel after that until he appears in the desert, living a strange and wonderful lifestyle and already sought out by the crowds because of his preaching. These details of the desert, the strange clothes and diet, and his fierce and fiery preaching tell us that the Spirit he received from Christ in the womb had formed his character and poured the divine light into his mind to perceive and fulfil the mission God had given him. The desert is the place of trial and temptation, of the encounter with evil, the evil within and the evil without. It is evident that, by the Spirit, John conquered evil and became its nemesis, preaching a baptism of repentance to urge his people to abandon sin. In this he is like Elijah the prophet, who did battle with Jezebel and the prophets of the false gods, and put them to the sword once the people turned their hearts back to the Lord. John was turning hearts back to God in expectation of Christ.
The whole point of John’s baptism of repentance was to prepare the way for the One whose sandal he was unworthy to untie. Getting men and women to admit their sin and reject it was John’s way of preparing the way of the Lord. Lowering the hills and cliffs of pride and vanity, filling the valleys of moral bankruptcy and faithlessness, making straight the way of the Lord by calling people to live by the commandments of God: all of these things were done so that the Lamb of God would find welcome in the hearts of the Jewish nation. That powerful image of John as the voice crying in the wilderness of the human heart to awaken it to prepare itself for God turns poignant when, not long after that, not only his voice is cut off in decapitation, but also the wilderness returns to Israel in its rejection of Christ, leaving John’s voice as an empty echo in the wind.
Before that, though, we see John in full swing, giving practical moral advice to those who came to him and, of course, to King Herod and Herodias who did not come to him. He told people to produce fruit that showed their repentance was real; he tells one man to share his clothes and food with those without; he enjoins on the tax collectors not to collect more than they should; to the soldiers he warns them not to extort. His fiercest tirade is against, first, the scribes and Pharisees, whom he calls a brood of vipers and, second, Herod’s adultery. The Archangel Gabriel also foretold that the Baptist would be like Elijah who would come and turn the hearts of children towards their fathers and of fathers towards their children. This is the Baptist as the healer of broken family relationships between generations. Gabriel also says that he will turn the hearts of the disobedient towards the wisdom of the righteous. In other words, he will preach that obedience to God is true wisdom and justice. In other words, doing your own thing is folly and injustice.
The urgency in John’s preaching is because he perceives the One coming after him as bringing the fire and wrath of God against the unjust. His language is of the end times. He calls Christ the One who is mightier than himself, who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He says of Christ that his winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Again, he depicts Christ has wielding an axe: the axe is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. From these rather potent images, clearly John expected Christ to usher in not just the end times, but the end of time. John’s own preaching and style were apocalyptic, you could say, because he took his inspiration from the Judge of the living and the dead who was about to come.
As part of this, John knew that it was not his own baptism that counted. His own baptism was a call to people to use their freedom to stop sinning, to repent of sin. But he knew that his baptism could not take away the sin already committed, and that human freedom was not strong enough on its own to defeat sin. John also understood that Christ would take away the sin of the world and baptize people with the Holy Spirit only as the result of his sacrifice as the Lamb of God. Sin tries to steal from God. When we sin we pretend we are god in deciding what’s good and evil. We grasp at God and offend and demean God because we refuse to submit in obedience to his law. What is stolen from God has to be restored to him. We have to pay it back. It has to be redeemed. But alone we cannot do it. Christ took on that burden not for a few, not even only for his own nation, but for humanity. He became the Restorer, the Pay-back-er, the Redeemer. And so John solemnly points him out as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is the Lamb of sacrifice, innocent yet burdened with all iniquity.
But the Baptist also knows that Christ is indeed the Messiah, the Anointed of God, the Son of God. As Jesus descends into the water of the Jordan despite John’s protests, John realises that righteousness demanded that Jesus had first to identify with the sin and death of the world in the filthy waters. But as Jesus comes up from the waters, symbolising the victory over sin and death in the resurrection, John witnesses the Father tearing open the heavens, sending down the Dove of the Spirit and proclaiming Jesus to be His Son, the Beloved, the Servant in whom He is well-pleased. The Baptist finds himself as the forerunner of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, caught up into its manifestation of itself at the Jordan. It must have been a powerful moment of consolation for him.
Many were the temptations of the Baptist in the desert, no doubt. But the most subtle was to begin to think of himself as some big shot. The people were all flocking to him, hanging on his words, submitting their lives into his hands, believing that he himself was the Messiah. Had all this gone to his head, John could have manipulated the people to his advantage, even though it would have been short-term and, in the end, fruitless. But he did not. He said openly that he was not the one people imagined him to be. He identified himself only as a voice in the desert preparing the way for the Word Incarnate. He showed immense humility in saying that he wasn’t even worthy to untie the strap of the sandal of the One coming after him. He says that he must decrease so that Christ could increase. He identified himself with the happy title of the friend of the Bridegroom, who was indeed very happy to hear the voice of the Bridegroom himself, Jesus. He even surrenders his own disciples to Jesus as he points to Jesus as the Lamb of God. They leave him and go after the Master never to return to John. He stripped himself, humbled himself, had the proper measure of himself in relation to the Messiah.
But the greatest act of his witness to Jesus was still to come. Hounded by the anger and hatred of Herodias, John is beheaded through trickery and through the moral bankruptcy of a lustful and drunken Herod. The voice that proclaimed loud and clear the sixth commandment, thou shalt not commit adultery, was silenced by a vicious and chilling violation of the fifth commandment, thou shalt not kill. John dies for the truth. He dies for Christ, the Truth.
News of his death causes Jesus to withdraw to a quiet place, no doubt to mourn John, but also to pray and set out on a new phase of his public ministry. His praise of John is glowing: no-one greater born of woman; a prophet and more than a prophet; the Elijah who was to return. Not even among his apostles, perhaps, did Jesus find as kindred a spirit to his own than in John. John had none of the complexes, doubts or fears of the apostles in their early association with Jesus. John’s heart had only rich soil; in it was buried the pearl of great price; from it there grew not a thirty, not a sixty, but a hundredfold harvest of grace; it had no mixture of weeds and wheat; it was conformed magnificently and heroically to every one of the Beatitudes; it was possessed by the Spirit, prized by the Father and loved by the Son. Even on a merely human level, Jesus would have considered John the Baptist a true friend, a dear friend. One glance between them, and they will have understood one another perfectly.
My brothers and sisters, by studying and contemplating the figure of the Baptist we find a model of the kind of person treasured by Christ. And if we enter into that dynamic of the relationship between these two, we will discover that between them they will show us, too, how to become true friends of God. For, it was not just John who was chosen before he was born for a special mission. We were, too. How easily we dumb ourselves down! Or is it that we recoil from accepting our mission lest it demand too much? John received a special gift of the Spirit in the womb, but most of us receive baptism into Jesus himself in our earliest days, a baptism far superior to John’s, a gift of the Spirit comparable with if not greater than John’s! John did battle and conquered evil by God’s grace in the wilderness. We each know our wilderness, our battles with evil. We know our failures and weaknesses, yes, but we are given, no less than John, the gift of the Spirit to conquer through Jesus. We need only believe it and call on it.
We, too, have our mission to witness to the Christ who is coming. What we need is to cultivate the awareness of it in prayer, in spiritual education and self-education. We need to work out how we can execute our mission in the circumstances of our lives and in the form of life we choose to live. The Baptist was given a manifestation of the Trinity in the midst of his mission. God will also reveal himself to us as he sees fit and as we need in the midst of ours. Like the Baptist, our mission needs to be done in submission, in humility, pointing always to Christ, lived in profound personal union with him, learning to sense his voice and rejoicing when we do. He is the bridegroom of our souls and of the souls to whom we witness in his name. Our zenith is not some career or other, but the God-given mission to know ourselves chosen and to give ourselves unstintingly!
The Baptist teaches us so many things! Courage, clarity, humility, the fear of God understood as living consciously in God’s presence, true love for neighbour, freedom from the superfluous and the luxurious, self-denial, self-discipline, inner liberty and fearlessness in facing anyone, a spirit of adoration towards Christ and the Father, a capacity to live and direct our lives according to the Word of God, and the supreme gift of self-sacrificing agape for the sake of Christ.
The Baptist is a true icon of Jesus and must now enjoy the most wonderful union of heart and mind with him in the Kingdom. Let us not be shy to approach this son of Elizabeth and Zachariah, and to ask his help to prepare the way of Christ in our lives and in our times. In the Christ Constellation, the Baptist’s star shines brightly. May he shine upon our weary hearts and souls and pray to the Lamb of God to take away our sins, to give us light in our darkness and to guide our feet into the way of peace.