John the Baptist is the dominant figure in the middle of Advent, and for good reason. From the Latin word “Adventus” and the Greek word “Parousia,” Advent means “come” or “arrival.” This arrival that we celebrate is the Incarnation. Of course, Parousia has meanings particular to the Incarnation, the Sacraments, and the Second Coming.
There is an intimate connection between awaiting the Incarnation and for Jesus Christ’s return in the Second coming. The nation of Israel and all of fallen humanity await redemption. This salvation narrative culminates in the Incarnation, the moment that transforms the course of history. Already this incarnation prefigures the resurrection from the dead through the exaltation of the flesh. God physically entering the human stage of cosmic history gives us hope in the resurrection at the Second Coming. Advent not only reminds us of the Incarnation but also points us towards the culmination of God’s promise at the end of ages. We are always awaiting the arrival of our Lord.
Advent is about preparing for the coming of our savior. However, in order to prepare the way we must begin by preparing ourselves. It is very significant that John the Baptist shows up in our advent readings because he always directs us how to prepare to receive Christ.
In August, I heard a priest’s homily describe John the Baptist as being too harsh with people by telling them to repent. This priest explained that Jesus calls people to the table just the way they are, where as John the Baptist was telling them they had to change. This priest portrayed John as an unchristian character. The priest was right about one thing: John was calling people to change their ways, but so was Jesus. To receive transforming love and grace is to freely accept it while intentionally turning away from sin. I believe the dichotomy this priest was drawing implied that God does not really want to save us from our sin but from the troubles of the world, as if returning to God and repenting from sin are two very different things. However, the reality is that John the Baptist’s message is indispensable from salvation.
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:1-12)
In preparation for Christmas, many people sing carols, buy gifts, and perform many other ritual happenings. Christmas is so important we have a whole industry built around it and consumerism reaches year highs. This is truly a feel good season. Yet John the Baptist’s words stand as a piercing sword; he was no modern day consumer and his message was for our good, not for our immediate pleasure. Repentance is the immediate condition to open us to receiving God just as John the Baptist is the precursor prophet readying the way for Christ. Grace follows conversion. There is no contradiction. We must repent and we must do good works as evidence of our repentance. This is the advent challenge and our challenge as long as we await the Parousia.
John the Baptist stands as a sharp contrast to the many things the Christmas season has come to signify. Yet, if this is truly the season of giving we should easily find value in John’s words. The goodness we do should reflect our interior disposition to receive Christ and respond to his grace. We should not avoid enjoying the Christmas season as much as we should heed this warning and attempt to celebrate its true meaning; preparing ourselves to receive Christ and celebrate his birth. Ultimately, this will enhance Christmas as a family occasion and put Christ at its center.
More so than Santa Claus, John the Baptist is the chosen herald to proclaim God’s presence among men. Possibly a good mental exercise would be to compare and contrast these two figures and ask why Santa Claus is given more precedent in our celebration of Christ’s birth. Maybe people could dress up like John the Baptist instead of Santa Claus. We could have Advent carols: You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why, John the Baptist is coming to town!
note: Advent seems to have originally been an ascetical (fasting) season without Liturgical celebration that may have been a six week period that ran up to the Epiphany but later became a liturgical season with no fasting. In Rome it became a season enclosed by four Sundays as a pre-Christmas season. In preparation for Christmas some minor form of fasting may still be appropriate.