Last Sunday and now this Sunday the Gospel proclamation has placed emphasis on John the Baptist.
John the Baptist is one of the premier figures of the Gospel revelation. The Church honors him as one of a handful of pre-eminent witnesses to Christ- along with Christ’s mother, her spouse Joseph and the Apostles Peter and Paul, John the Baptist is accorded special consideration. His birthday is celebrated in the Church’s calendar of worship, a distinction that is shared only with Christ and his Mother.
Further, in terms of the Church’s artistic heritage, John the Baptist is depicted with a frequency exceeded only by Lord Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Christ himself honored John the Baptist by basically declaring him greatest person that ever lived.
Why all the attention?
What makes John the Baptist so extraordinary, so special?
The Gospel of Luke testifies that John the Baptist was a blood relative of the Lord Jesus, being related to him through his mother, who was kin to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
John the Baptist was born into two families that were part of the priestly clans of the Israelite religion, which meant he was himself an Israelite priest, for priestly ministry in terms of the Israelite religion was not simply a matter of personal calling, but of one’s blood, one’s family. Only members of certain clans could perform the priestly rituals of Israelite religion, and John was born on his father’s and mother’s side into a clan of priests of considerable rank and influence.
Since the priestly rituals of the Israelites were considered to be the most esteemed and important work of the culture, being a priest was no small thing- it meant that John would have been considered pretty much near the top of his culture’s social hierarchy and this positioning would have afforded him not only expectations and obligations, but privileges as well.
If John had wanted he likely could have leveraged his position to his benefit and been a recipient of not only wealth, but also honors and power.
The Gospel makes it clear that John wanted none of this and set aside his priestly role and responsibilities and in fact, set himself in opposition to the temple and priesthood he had been born to serve and support.
The Gospel testifies that John’s opposition to the temple priests and the political powers that supported them, the dynasty of King Herod, was intense and severe. (Remember King Herod is the wicked tyrant that the Gospel of Matthew records ordered the murder of the children of Bethlehem.) He considered the corruption of both so catastrophic that he proclaimed (threatened) that God himself was coming to set things right, and in preparation for that day, the people should leave the temple and repent of their own collusion in its corruption.
Thus, the baptism of John is not a friendly ritual of inclusion, but an action of defiance that announces a revolution is about to take place, and the leader of this revolution would be the God of Israel himself.
The God of Israel would come and deal with the corruption of Israelite worship and the tyranny of King Herod and his successors and anyone who was cooperating with them had much to lose when this day finally arrived.
John was evidently a convincing preacher, for crowds flocked into the wilderness, likely out of both curiosity and fear. John was announcing a revolution and that revolution would reveal himself in Christ the Lord.
The real revolutionary was not John the Baptist, but the Lord Jesus.
This likely seems strange for us to hear, as for many, the Gospel is received as a book of quaint stories or principles for self help or personal spiritual enrichment. In these kinds of construal, Christ is a kind of guru or philosopher, rather than a revolutionary.
John the Baptist was able to foresee the revolution and the revolutionary, but there also seems to be much about both that he did not understand.
It seems that John expected God in Christ to effect a re-ordering of Israelite culture in which the dynasty of Herod would be deposed (thrown out) and the power behind Herod, which was Rome, would be defeated. This would effect the restoration of Israelite worship, freeing the priesthood from corrupting political influences and establishing a new Kingdom for the Israelites that would surpass in glory the Kingdom of David and Solomon.
God in Christ would, in fact, accomplish everything that John the Baptist expected, but would do all this employing a plan, a strategy that exceeded John’s comprehension. There would be new kingdom and a new temple, as well as a new priesthood and a new way of being an Israelite- but in regards to all this, what God in Christ had in mind, would surprise not only John, but all of Israel, indeed the whole world.
The new kingdom God in Christ would establish would be what we know as the Church, and this Church would be a new kind of transformed Israel. The temple and priesthood of this transformed Israel is what we experience in the Mass and the new way of being an Israelite is the unique way of life that imitates the love of God revealed in the Lord Jesus. We see this way of life in its most exemplary form in the lives of the Church’s saints.
All of this is the revolution of the Lord Jesus, for this Church that he reveals is meant to be the means by which God in Christ acts to transform the world, to change cultures, to deal with the kinds of worldliness and corruptions represented by tyrants like Herod or empires like Rome.
When the Church is what Christ wants her to be, then the revolution of Christ advances and the world can be changed for the better. If we don’t experience this as happening, we might ask ourselves what we are doing to frustrate or inhibit Christ’s plan for the Church.
Throughout the history of the Church, men and women in positions of power have intuited that the Church is not, as some might think, a benign, faith based social club, but a threat, a revolution, an overturning of a culture’s false gods and a challenge to a culture’s defiance of God’s commandments. When the Church enters a culture it always means that a culture will be changed, and that is a threatening prospect for those who would prefer keeping the benefits they receive from the status quo.
Some, knowing the revolutionary reality of the Church, oppose her openly with violence and persecution. Others, will try to domesticate the Church and use her to serve their own interests and causes. Strategies like this have been employed in the past regarding the Church and they continue to be employed today.
The revolution of the Church is strange because the Church is not to employ the weapons of worldliness and violence that men and women of worldly power use to get their way. As Pope Benedict once remarked, the Church proposes, rather than imposes- this means faith in Christ cannot be coerced, the gift can only be accepted freely and every invitation offered to know Christ is always willing to risk that offer being refused without recourse to threats or indignation.
The revolution of the Church is also, as Pope Francis recently described, one of tenderness and its strategy is one of worshiping God as he wants to be worshipped in the Mass, inviting people to know and encounter the Lord Jesus in the Church, and serving the needs of the suffering Christ as he presents himself to us in the suffering bodies of the poor.
Thus, if you want to know what this revolution will look like in the life of someone who follows Christ, take a careful and long look at the Church’s saints.
If you think this sounds benign enough, you haven’t thought hard and long enough about the implications for a culture (like our own) that worships false gods like wealth, celebrity and power, or what it means for cultures that propagates themselves through violence or coercion, and for political and economic systems that push the poor, and therefore Christ, to the margins of a culture and then insist that we pretend that neither Christ or the poor even exist. Think long and hard about what the Church represents to a culture that mocks Christ with blasphemy and goes out of its way to express its contempt for God’s commandments. If these are the realities of a culture’s values, then when the Church arrives in its midst, the culture will surmise that our purposes are not just social service, but a kind of revolution.
Tyrants like Herod and Empires like Rome have many successors.
Christians have much to answer for if we are qualifying the demands of the Gospel so that we can placate and serve our desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honors, rather than serving Christ.
The season of Advent is unobserved and forgotten outside the Church. Christmas has become for many merely a pleasant diversion, a fantasia on wintry themes.
Within the Church, where Advent is remembered, and the witness of John the Baptist is recalled, the faithful remember the coming of God in Christ, the revolutionary, and are the preparing ourselves for the bear into the world the banners that announce his revolution.