Turn us again, O God; / show the light of thy countenance, and we shall be whole.
(Ps. lxxx 3)
If Advent is about making ready for a Christmas birth, today St. John the Baptist exhorts us to witness to the coming Word in Hope. (Fr. Crouse: Advent Meditations) St. John Baptist’s vocation or mission is to prepare us for the true and lasting coming of Christ –that birth that promises to make us into the children of our Heavenly Father. St. John Baptist’s life reveals what must precede the coming of Jesus Christ in our hearts and souls. His witness illustrates the severe nature of our preparation. His final days are a testimony to the watching and waiting that are incumbent upon all who must trust in the coming salvation and deliverance that Christ alone can bring.
St. John the Baptist is a true Apostle and Evangelist. He has such confidence in thetruth that he was unconcerned about our reception of it. What I mean is that he wasn’t really afraid of offending or disconcerting others. He doesn’t offer a theory to be considered for rational acceptance. He proclaims the truth. He informs us that Christ the Saviour is coming. He says even that once his message of preparation is heard, He must increase, and I must decrease. (St. John iii. 30) John the Precursor and the Preparer is on a mission to compel us to share in his self-emptying and spiritual death. I must die, that Christ may come alive, John exclaims. Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (St. Matthew iii. 2), he insists.
Repentance is not optional. It is a necessary first step if we would be saved by the Saviour! John’s message comes with urgency. We ought to respond to it now. John has no time for Christians who have opinions and notions that they have arrived at by themselves. Christ is coming to us as Saviour of the world. Should we make the mistake of indulging a luxury that we don’t have with time that is too precious to waste and energy that ought to be put into repentance, we shall be lost forever.
We don’t pay enough attention to St. John the Baptist. He is one of the most important of the Evangelists because he came to know himself in stark contradistinction to God’s Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. First, in the barren wilderness or desert, and then within the abandonment of a lonely prison cell, John repents of his sins. He empties himself of himself, and then waits and watches for the One whose coming alone can give new life and meaning to a nature that has died to everything. He must increase and I must decrease. (Idem)
Repentance is the acknowledgment of our self-willed alienation from the sovereign God. God is the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe. His rule and governance are at work behind the scenes of living facts which contribute to the unfolding of His will. Do we think of this? God will not be mocked. God’s truth will prevail. God’s will shall be done whether we choose to find it or not. Be not deceived, God has a plan for our universe and He expects us to come into the knowledge of it! What God has already done is preparation for what He will do. He has a plan for us. We are called not only to see it but to will to be a part of it.
When we repent, we take the necessary steps to ensure that we are willing to die to whatever is not of God in us. We must move our sin out of the way. Jesus says elsewhere if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee…if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee…for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. (St. Matthew 5. 29, 30) Repentance must be followed by the real intention to go and sin no more, to bring sin to death in the heart, that the ever-coming Saviour may have His way with us.
Yet we must acknowledge also that repentance does not promise immediate consolation or instant gratification. Oftentimes God gives the repentant man additional suffering so that his soul might cleave all the more necessarily to the Divine Will. When John Baptist called King Herod to repent of the sin of marrying his brother’s wife while his brother was yet alive, he was cast into prison. When we urge others to repent with us, they often resent us to the point of wanting to punish us too. The world in all ages is far too enviously insecure and frail to heed the call. Herod was a fragile, immature, insecure, and apprehensive narcissist who lived in fear of losing what little power he had. We are the same when we reject the call to serious repentance. Repentance is humiliating. It cuts to the quick of the soul’s real condition. As a result, so many people cannot bear to hear of its urgent necessity.King Herod and his wife knew that they had sinned. But they did not want to hear about it.
What we must learn with John is that repentance is not an end in itself. The English word repentance comes to us from the French repentir, meaningto show contrition, sorrow, remorse, and regret over evil or sin committed.Repentance responds to Christ’s coming light and is a confession of deepest sorrow for preferring false gods to our Heavenly Father. The idol or false god might be a besetting sin or the idealization of any earthly attachment. John the Baptist reminds us that Jesus cannot come to us as long as there is anything in the way –either of goodness or badness. (O. Chambers, Aug. 22) Repentance must acknowledge that sometimes lesser goods have become gods to us. Countless numbers of Christians place self, family, or friends, earthly comfort, calculations, and considerations before God. Thus they are never blessed. Why? One can be blessed only if and when God comes first.
Repentance cries: He that cometh after me is preferred before me: for he was before me…I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness make straight the way of the Lord…He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, the latchet of whose shoes’ latchet I am not worthy to unloose. (St. John i. 15, 23, 26, 27) Repentance brings a man to see his own unworthiness. John thinks to himself: I was indeed this and that, but He came, and a marvelous thing happened. (O. Chambers, Aug. 22)Of course, what happenedto John cannot occur before his repentance has pushed him to the extreme of being undone. According to St. Gregory, John wonders if his impending execution and death can be reconciled to Jesus’ coming. (Greg. Sermones…) Gregory says that John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, ‘Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another’ (Idem), that he may know whether He who in His own person had come into the world, would in His own person descend also to the world below. (Idem) Can this hell that I suffer be consecrated to and reconciled with the essence of Christ’s coming, John asks? Can a loving and compassionate God allow self-emptying repentance to yield only an anguish of unjust suffering that ends in death? Will suffering and death that precede knowledge of His full coming be taken up into Christ’s salvific life? Will Jesus come into death and carry the righteous into salvation and reconciliation with God the Father? Jesus answer is gentle but firm. Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. (St. Matthew 11. 4,5)
Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? (St. Matthew 11. 3) How can John Baptist, who had baptized Jesus in the river Jordan, who had seen the heavens…opened unto him, and the Spirit of the Lord descending like a dove and lighting upon Jesus (St. Matt. iii. 16), ask this question? Has his faith failed? Has his imprisonment overwhelmed him in a sea of doubt and despair regarding his vocation? John is fully human and so naturally enough He might desire some relief before rather than after his earthly death.
Jesus will overcome and compensate for any loss that we suffer as we repent and prepare for His coming. Blessed is he who in the midst of suffering and death can yet hear the Good News of the healing and salvation that Christ is bringing to others. Blessed is he who suffers gladly for Jesus and sees his own suffering as a gift from God to be offered up as a witness to penitential surrender. Jesus expects more from John because John has died to himself. John’s repentance brings him into consciousness that his suffering and death must not stand in the way of the new birth and life that Jesus Christ brings to his soul. John surrenders His life as a prophesy for what His Lord and Master will imitate. Jesus allows John to provide Him with the pattern and model of His own future.
John Baptist prepares us to welcome Christ’s birth inwardly and spiritually. Jesus asks, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. (St. Matt. xi 7,8) John’s calling was not thrown off by the cataclysmic shocks to the natural world. Nor was he pampered and comforted by human riches. John was moved violently within to deny himself and embrace the coming Jesus. Yet he was required to endure doubt, confusion, and uncertainty also. He is the precursor of our own suffering.
So, as Romano Guardini puts it:
Into the depths of John’s lowest hour then would Jesus’
Word have been spoken: ‘Blessed is he who is not scandalized or offended
in me.’ The Lord knows his herald; knows his need. The message
sent by the mouth of his uncomprehending disciples into the
darkness of the dungeon is a divine message. John understood.
(R.G. The Lord, p. 25)
At last, John understood. Because John will suffer and die unjustly, God’s Grace rewards him with new life in another. First, John must repent of his own innocent importance that dangerously threatens to ruin Christ’s coming into his soul. John’s reward is a vision of the new salvation life that Christ brings to others. Our reward will be the same if we are not offended in Christ (Ibid, 6), and we look for no other to come alive in us.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons