Opening the Word: Preparing the way

“Since the coming of Christ goes on forever — he is always he who is to come in the world and in the Church — there is always an Advent going on, and this Advent is filled by John the Baptist. It is John the Baptist’s peculiar grace that he prepares the way for what is about to happen.” 

I’ve quoted this passage from Cardinal Jean Danielou before, but I refer to it again because it captures the essence of John the Baptist’s mission and serves as a wonderful introduction to today’s Gospel. Advent is filled by John the Baptist. What does this mean? 

The reading from the prophet Isaiah provides the context for John’s message. It is a promise of redemption to the exiled Israelites, told they would be able to return to their homeland from captivity in Babylon and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The sins of the people had been forgiven and their guilt expiated; the future would see justice and joy given to all those who acknowledge and worship God.  

John was chosen by God to be a lone voice in the wilderness. That wilderness is first of all the rugged and desolate land in which he dwelt some 2,000 years ago. But the wilderness is also the world as large and throughout history. That includes the world today, which is a jungle of despair and trials, overgrown with temptations and filled with sins and evils of every sort. John’s voice fills that world, even today, for he is a true prophet of God, and his message is urgent and timely: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” 

Just as Isaiah announced an exile from Babylon and a return to the promised land, John proclaims an exile from sin and a fulfillment of the covenantal promises of God. The mysterious figure “appeared in the desert” — a place of desolation, testing and isolation. His way of living harkened back to the 40 years the Israelites had spent in the desert, and his proclamation indicated a radical change was fast approaching. 

This change was, in a word, repentance. The Greek word, metanoia, means a “change of mind,” but also a complete change of orientation, action and living. More than 50 years ago, a young priest wrote about how John the Baptist “is the stern herald who summons the people to metanoia: to a change of heart or conversion.” Father Joseph Ratzinger then wrote, “Anyone who wants to be a Christian must be constantly ‘changing his thinking or outlook’. … If we want to find God, we must be constantly undergoing an interior conversion, turning around and moving the opposite direction, and this even in the way we understand life as a whole.” 

The future Pope Benedict XVI also stated this “means that the Christian looks not only to the past and what has been but also to what is coming.” This looking ahead is the focus of today’s epistle, which exhorts each Christian to consider “what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames.” 

At the first Advent, heaven silently invaded earth and the righteous Son of God dwelt among men; at the future Advent, the glorious Son of God will come to judge and to usher in a “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and the work of John the Baptist fulfilled, for “all people shall see it together.” 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.