Click here for the Sunday Readings - December 14, 2014
What is going on in today’s Gospel?
John the Baptist is one of the most well-known figures in all of Christian Tradition. In fact, we are so accustomed to hearing his name that we may not pause to explore who he really was or to unpack what, precisely, his role was with respect to the coming of the Messiah.
Historical records confirm that John was a contemporary of Jesus, an itinerant preacher who lived in the desert and emphasized the themes of repentance and asceticism. We know that John’s ministry predates that of Jesus, and the Acts of the Apostles tell us that a number of John’s followers eventually joined the early community of (Jesus’) disciples.
As a wandering preacher, foretelling an impending judgment and calling the people to conversion, John fit a fairly familiar “type” for first century Palestine. We hear stories of numerous such individuals who dotted the countryside, not unlike the street-corner evangelists one might encounter in a major city today. Underlying the message of such persons was an imminent eschatology, that is, a sense that the end times were approaching, and that people must (with a great degree of urgency) repent of their sinfulness and rededicate themselves to living in accordance with God’s Law.
Indeed, this ministry puts John the Baptist squarely in the role of prophet, as depicted throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and the other prophets of Biblical times... each is missioned to a particular time and place in Jewish history, compelled by God to preach a message of repentance from sin and preparation for impending judgment from the Lord. The Gospel author makes explicit this comparison in today’s passage, portraying the Pharisees as questioning John as to whether or not he was Elijah. Elijah, according to Jewish belief, would return at a second point history to herald the impending arrival of the Messiah. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, John is depicted as wearing “clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist,” which is how Elijah is depicted in the Second Book of Kings. But instead of representing the second coming of Elijah, the evangelists set John up as a parallel sort of herald who is, in fact, announcing the coming of the Messiah... but it will not be the sort of Messiah that the Jews have had in mind.
Central to John’s ministry is his public practice of Baptizing believers. The rite was one of ritual cleansing, a symbolic gesture designed to invoke the act of washing away dirt from one’s body prior to engaging in some important activity. Water is the focal point of washing, regardless of whether it is washing one’s hands before a meal, washing one’s clothes to get them clean, or washing one’s whole self in the act of Baptism. Dirt and contaminants accumulate on the skin, and so it is necessary to wash oneself prior to partaking of a meal or participating in a holy activity.
Moreover, those who had been baptized by John would step back out onto the Western shore of the Jordan River, onto the land promised to their ancestors as part of the Covenant with Abraham and Moses. Emerging from the River represented the first step in forming a new Israel; repentant for one’s past transgression and rededicated to living in accordance with God’s Law.
So what does this have to do with us?
Interpreting John the Baptist in light of Jesus, we see the practice of Baptism as the first step in our lifelong journey of discipleship. John’s preaching emphasized an acknowledgment of our sins, followed by a conversion of heart, and completed by the commitment to conform our lives to the will of God. Such is the process we see unfolding in the Sacrament of Reconciliation as well: candid admission of and sincere sorrow for our sinfulness; authentic conversion of heart; and a decision to do what it takes to avoid future instances.
But beyond simply “not sinning,” we are called to live in the fullness of God’s design for us. And we see in the words and deeds of Jesus what that actually looks like. We hear in the Beatitudes a new standard of holiness to which we might aspire. We encounter in the parables a form of mercy and compassion that challenges us to rise above the minimalistic prohibitions of the Ten Commandments, and to embrace a more robust ethic of love, forgiveness, and generosity toward all with whom we interact. And, perhaps most powerfully, we witness in the actions of Jesus how it looks to sacrifice one’s own ambitions in order to comply with the will of God, and so to serve others. Nowhere is this more evident than in the image of Jesus on the Cross, having given his whole self, that we might be saved.
How are we called to incorporate all of this today?
In keeping with the cries of the Baptist, we ought to take this Advent opportunity to identify the areas in our own lives that are in need of repentance, restoration, and rededication. What are some of the ways in which we struggle to live in accordance with God’s plan for us? How have we allowed our sinfulness, selfishness, or complacency, to seep into our daily routine? Having acknowledged those tendencies, are we able to come to an authentic contrition, that is, a genuine recognition that they really are destructive toward our spiritual health, and that we really are called to more? Then, having arrived at this moment of conversion, do we then ask not only for forgiveness, but for the help of God and the grace of the Holy Spirit, without whom none of this would be possible, as we set about attempting to re-commit ourselves to living a Christ-like life?
The process is not immediate, nor is it a one-time thing. We do not have a singular moment of conversion, in which we are washed of our sinfulness, only to be made invulnerable to temptation. Instead, our lives are a daily process of conversion, a ceaseless series of moments in which we recognize our failure, ask for forgiveness, and seek God’s help in doing a better job over the days to come. The process can be draining, disheartening, and discouraging. The temptation to despair is omnipresent and often overwhelming. How easy it would be to simply give up... to decide that we will never be enough, never live up to God’s hopes, never overcome the sinful tendencies to which we regularly return.
In the face of that temptation, we listen to the clarion call of today’s readings: Rejoice! Today is Gaudete Sunday (the Sunday of the “pink” candle, which is actually “rose”), when both the First and Second readings include the exhortation that we rejoice in the saving power of God and trust in His plan. We rejoice not because of our own ability, but because of God’s ability. We rejoice that our God is a patient God, who understands that we are works-in-progress, and we rejoice that, even when we fail, God’s grace more than makes up the difference.
Questions for Reflection
1. Have you ever been to the Baptism of a relative or friend? Did anything stand out to you? What do you recall having learned about Baptism in your study of the faith?
2. Think of a time you have participated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Did you have some sins that you needed to get off your chest? How did you experience conversion, and how did you recommit yourself to living in accordance with God’s plan?
3. Can you think of some areas in your life right now that might be in need of repair? How can you use these last days of Advent to prepare yourself for the coming of Christmas?
4. Do you ever feel fatigued or discouraged with respect to being a work-in-progress? How does today’s call to “Rejoice!” hit you? Is there anything that gives you hope?