There are two great saints who stand, as Father Hans Urs von Balthasar described it, on either side of the gate into Advent. As we enter this season, John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary “ask us why and with what intentions we are seeking admission.” It so happens that this Sunday of Advent falls on what is normally the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, which has been transferred to Dec. 9. In successive days, we are able to more deeply consider these two members of the family of Jesus, who are related by blood, but are also joined to the Savior in unique, distinctive ways.
John, the cousin of Jesus, was the forerunner, preaching the ringing message of repentance and preparation. Two thousand years ago, he cried out in the desert; today, his words still resonate in the desert of a world thirsty for life and salvation. Mary, conceived without sin, would hear the call of God via another messenger, Gabriel, who said to her, “Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28). John was faithful to hear God’s call, then to preach and prepare the way; Mary was faithful to receive God’s word and then give birth to the Word Incarnate.
“The Precursor of Jesus,” said Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in Advent 2010 of John the Baptist, “situated between the Old Covenant and the New, is like a star that heralds the rising of the Sun, of Christ, the One, that is, upon whom … ‘the Spirit of the Lord shall rest... the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord’ (Is 11:2).”
Note that wisdom, understanding, counsel, might and knowledge are all attributes of God, while the fear of the Lord — that is, a proper awe and attitude of humble gratitude and worship — is the result of being gifted with God’s grace. Without humility, Advent remains a lonely desert; with humility, we are nourished within the gates of God’s goodness.
However, we shouldn’t confuse humility and receptivity with being passive. The call to repentance requires a response. This is touched on in today’s epistle, in which St. Paul encourages the Christians in Rome to “think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They were also exhorted to “welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you ...” This was not a mere handshake, but a committed embrace, recognizing that the Church, the Body of Christ, is not a country club or an exchange of symbolic gestures, but the household of God (1 Tm 3:15). Indeed, “The Church is the goal of all things” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 760).
John did not know of the mystery of the Church, but knew who he was and what he was called to do. His identity and his mission were joined perfectly in pointing to the Messiah. All who have been baptized into the Messiah, freed from original sin and filled with divine life, have become united with him (see Rom 6).
During Advent, we listen even more intently to his words. “As we contemplate in the Mother of God a life totally shaped by the word,” said Pope Benedict, “we realize that we too are called to enter into the mystery of faith, whereby Christ comes to dwell in our lives. Every Christian believer, St. Ambrose reminds us, in some way interiorly conceives and gives birth to the word of God.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.