Today’s Gospel introduces John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus, who came as a witness to speak for the Light. There had not been a prophet for 100 years in Israel. Prophets were the conscience of the people, encouraging them to model God’s values of generosity and love. They kept the flame of faith alive when it had almost disappeared. The faith of Israel was a way of life, convinced that God was on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
John’s message was stark and clear. Repent: which means change whatever is blocking me from being a more loving person. To do this I have to go beyond my little egoic self into my Large Inner Core (my True Self) which sounds very easy until I actually try to change, which is never easy. I have to empty myself of my attachments, criticisms and judgements and offending behaviours which is the work of the Spirit in me.
John’s mission of repentance was hugely popular and drew the crowds who wanted change similar to our days of murders, rape, unjust treatment of the poor and needy. His mission took place in the wilderness, a hostile environment where wild animals roamed and where food was scarce. Wilderness reminded the Israelites of their 40 years journey on the way to the Promised Land. John lived frugally, dressed and ate simply as prophets did in those days. God’s values are essentially concerned with freedom and justice which we need badly today. John the Baptist was concerned with right and wrong, as oppression of the poor was rife and social justice was an urgent need.
The Pharisees and the Sadducees were particularly problematic when John was in the desert and John addressed them as a “brood of vipers” when they made an appearance in the wilderness. The Sadducees were the Religious leaders associated with the Temple. John warns them of any kind of presumption that, because they were children of Abraham, they would be spared from the wrath of God. He uses two powerful images to get across the retribution that he believed was coming; ‘the axe laid to the root of the tree’ and ‘the winnowing fan’ that separates the wheat from the chaff. Then we are given a clear insight into the spirituality of John the Baptist: someone who knows who he is- he baptises with water and knows who he is not- someone is coming after me who will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire, a wonderful blend of humility and self-confidence. John was an unconditional lover who pointed to The Other away from himself.
Questions for reflection if you wish:
Can you remember a life-changing experience like a ‘winnowing fan’ that has brought you back to what really matters in life- love, truth, community life, friendship? -the wheat that will be gathered into the barn.
Do you know one who combines the humility and self-confidence of John the Baptist? Advent helps.
Dympna Travers OP