Opening the Word: Prepare the way

The season of Advent, wrote Father Hans Urs von Balthasar in “You Crown the Year with Your Goodness” (Ignatius Press, $19.95), is like a gate through which the Christian “passes to enter some shrine. This gate is flanked by two figures guarding it.” These two persons, he added, “ask us why and with what intentions we are seeking admission.” 

In other words, Advent is not simply about the past, as if we are merely remembering some important but ancient event. It is just as much about the present and the future, for it has to do with the sweeping, mysterious panorama of salvation history. And these two great saints — John the Baptist and Mary, the Mother of God — are not lost or trapped in time, but are alive today, preparing us for the arrival of the Messiah. 

John the Baptist “stands tall and straight, haggard, an angel clothed in camel’s hair, who wants to be nothing but a Voice resounding through the wilderness of the world, the desert of time.” Why did von Balthasar call John the Baptist an “angel”? Because an ángelos is a messenger specifically sent by God to prepare the way for the word of the Lord (see Mk 1:2). John was the voice who announced the Word; he proclaimed a message of preparation for the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. 

John was both fiercely bold and thoroughly humble. He knew who he was and what he was called to do; his identity and mission were perfectly joined in a singular focus on the Messiah. Even before being born, while yet in the womb, he leapt at the voice of the God-bearer, the blessed Virgin Mary (see Lk 1:41), as if to say, “I am ready to speak, to announce, to proclaim!” But it was Mary who first proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Lk 1:46-47). John and his mission gestated a while longer. 

John’s time finally arrived some 30 years later when he emerged from the Judean desert. His message can be summarized in a single word: “Repent!” And that is the message he continues to announce during Advent, always pointing to Christ with a piercing single-mindedness. He stands today, a wild and mysterious figure, demanding that we recognize how close is the kingdom of heaven and exhorting us to open our hearts to the King. “He sets an example for all Christians,” said von Balthasar, “all apostles, priests, all who proclaim Christ: None of them may proclaim themselves, chatter about their own religious experience: They are to be only the voice of him who is ‘increasing,’ who is always greater.” 

John said that the one who was coming after him would bring unquenchable fire. That fire is the “transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 696). It is the divine life that burns away the chaff of temporality while revealing all that is holy and eternal. “For the power of fire is deemed to be beneficial and strong,” noted St. Theodore of Heraclea, “destructive of evil things and preservative of what is better.” God, after all, is a consuming fire (see Dt 4:24). 

Shortly before being arrested and martyred, John spoke to his disciples about Jesus, saying, “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). As Advent unfolds, we are challenged to decrease, allowing the chaff of our sins to be burned away while opening our hearts to be filled with Christ. 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of