Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
John the Baptist, the great forerunner of the Messiah, is heard in the Gospel today identifying himself with the prophecy of Isaiah: “A voice of one crying out in the desert:’ Prepare the way of the Lord’.” His sacred, prophetic task, is to call all who hear him to prepare their hearts for the coming of Christ. To accomplish this, John calls the people to repentance, to conversion of life, and to baptism. His baptism is the outward sign of a heart that desires to change, of a soul turning away from sin and death and toward the life promised by God.
In calling people to repentance and conversion, John must necessarily speak to the consciences of his listeners. He is not afraid to point out sinful inclinations, attitudes, and actions. Note, however, that when John calls to repentance, it is without judgement. To name sin as sin is not the same as to reject persons or to condemn. Rather, identifying the problem – sin – allows John to offer a solution – repentance – and invite people to a different way of life. As a teacher corrects the mistakes of a student without casting them out of the class, so John the Baptist demonstrates the sinfulness of the people, all the while calling them to a new way of living, a renewal in their relationship with God.
In this, we can see a reflection of the mission of the Church and of every Catholic. We can see in ourselves both John the Baptist and the people he baptizes. We have been given the truth of the Gospel for the sake of calling others to conversion and inviting them to a new way of living. At the same time, we must always recognize our sinfulness, our need for repentance and conversion, and the change of life demanded by our fidelity to the Gospel. Our cultural milieu and locale can make this difficult at times. In a high-pressure, socially demanding area, appearances matter. We try to hide our faults. We don’t enjoy hearing that we are imperfect. Yet the voice of John the Baptist, the one crying out in the desert, still calls us to prepare the way of the Lord, to repent, to change our lives.
Ideas that prick the conscience inevitably arise. Our culture would tell us to ignore those ideas, that we’re just fine the way we are. Spiritual writers and commentators have described the religious beliefs of many as “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” that is, an approach to God that acknowledges a vague higher power, holds to certain, often malleable “values,” and generally is positive in tone and makes me feel good. But if religion is meant only to affirm me and make me feel good, there’s a good chance I have begun to worship myself. When those conscience-moving ideas are heard, we should hear them as though they were the voice of John the Baptist. Remember, John’s voice cries out a message of truth and clearly states what is required in order for us to prepare the way of the Lord. All the while, his voice is also inviting to a new way of living.
The season of Advent reminds us that we are people in need of conversion. The voice of John the Baptist does not cry out to condemn us, though. Rather, he invites us to a new life. As our conscience is moved, let us not ignore that challenge. Rather, let us respond with the knowledge that our repentance, our conversion of life, is a step forward in our relationship with God, a movement pleasing to Him, and a response of genuine love for the God who gives us everything, even His only-begotten Son.