What does John the Baptist teach us about the meaning of Advent?
Jesus said that John the Baptist is the greatest of all prophets: “there is none greater than John” (Mt 11:11a). Why? Because the other prophets prepared the people for a Messiah who would come in the long-distant future, but John the Baptist prepared the people for the Messiah who was about to arrive, and when Jesus finally did appear, he was given the exclusive privilege of being the only prophet to announce that the Messiah had, in fact, come. As Jesus approached John pointed to him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:29,36).
The Baptist had a miraculous birth, and in Scripture when a person is the product of a miracle birth, the person always has an extra-special vocation. John’s mother Elizabeth was elderly, had no children, and was beyond her child-bearing years, yet the archangel Gabriel appeared to her husband Zechariah, a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, and announced that she would conceive, and so she did. John was filled with the Holy Spirit even while he was in his mother’s womb (Lk 1:15), and he was chosen by God to be “the forerunner,” to continue the ministry of Elijah, the Old Testament prophet who was to reappear to announce the Messiah (Mal 3:23).
It is no surprise, then, that John appeared wearing a coat of camel’s hair. Elijah is the only Old Testament prophet to dress in this way (2 Kgs 1:8). Jesus would later explain how Elijah had come before him in the person of John the Baptist (Mt 17:10-13; Mk 9:11-13).
There had been no prophet in Israel for hundreds of years, so people were thrilled at the prospect that a prophet had appeared during their lifetimes. If the Baptist truly was what was claimed, a prophet and the return of Elijah, the people could hardly let the opportunity pass. Crowds went in great numbers out into the desert, a traditional place of encounter with God, to hear what this exceptional man of God had to say.
John cried out, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mk 1:3). This message, ever-old, initially for the crowds two thousand years ago, is ever-new for us today. During this Advent season we should prepare the way of the Lord, clear away any obstacle that would prevent Jesus from coming to us, so that when he does appear on Christmas, he will have unimpeded access to our hearts.
John also preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:4). John wanted his listeners to renounce sin, be washed of their past impurities, and be in the state of grace when Jesus appeared. Likewise, as we anticipate the memorial of the coming of Christ, if we wish to be well prepared for the solemn feast of Christmas, we would be wise to renounce our own sin, be washed of our past impurities, and be in the state of grace on Christmas when Jesus comes to us once again. The Baptist kept Jesus first above all things (Jn 3:30), and so should we!
About Father Michael Van Sloun
Father Michael Van Sloun is pastor of St. Bartholomew Catholic Church in Wayzata, Minn. As a former school principal, high school instructor and athletic coach, he has always been a teacher. He now teaches the faith as a homilist, Bible study leader, retreat director, pilgrimage guide and author of numerous articles.
© 2005, Rev. Michael A. Van Sloun
Used with permission.