by Abbot Joseph
[You can read this at Word Incarnate or continue below.]
After six weeks of Advent preparations in which we did our best to “prepare the way of the Lord,” we have finally celebrated the great feast of the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Suddenly we are again called to prepare the way of the Lord in today’s Gospel (Mk. 1:1-8). What is going on? Well, aside from the fact that we are called continually to prepare the way of the Lord as part of our spiritual life and Christian witness in the world, today is the Sunday before Theophany, which is the solemn feast of the baptism of the Lord and the manifestation of the All-holy Trinity (January 6). So the Church turns us toward St John the Forerunner, who announces the imminent revelation of the Son of God in the Jordan River and calls us to be well-disposed to receive his grace.
On the Sunday before Christmas we read the beginning of the Gospel of St Matthew. Now, on the Sunday before Theophany, we read the beginning of the Gospel of St Mark. That is quite appropriate, since the Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy and birth of Jesus, and the Gospel of Mark begins with the witness of the Forerunner and the baptism of Jesus.
Let us look at St John the Baptizer. But before we reflect on who he is, let us see who he is not. In this Gospel, it is clearly implied that he is not the Messiah, for he says, “After me comes he who is mightier than I.” In the Gospel of John, however, he is even more explicit. He simply says: “I am not the Messiah.” John the Baptizer had attracted a number of disciples, and many of these were quite devoted and loyal to him, for they did think he was the Messiah. That is why he had to be so emphatic about not being the long-awaited Anointed One. He was not the Bridegroom, but the friend of the Bridegroom, who waits for Him and announces Him. John had to decrease so that Jesus could increase and draw all men to Himself.
Perhaps this is the first lesson we can learn from this Gospel: let us be clear on who we are not. We are not God’s gift to the world. We are not great or exalted people, so we shouldn’t expect others to honor or serve us; we shouldn’t consider ourselves specially enlightened or wise, and therefore we shouldn’t expect others to follow or even to agree with us; we shouldn’t let our pride make us think we are better or more holy than others, for when we finally discover the truth we will be greatly humbled and even appalled. We are weak, limited, and defective beings, more or less like everyone else, so our task is not only to prepare the way of the Lord, but to get out of the way of the Lord!—so that we don’t hinder his will by our own self-importance or delusions of holiness.
Let’s get back to the Baptizer. Once we learn who he is not, the Gospel says who he is: A messenger sent before the face of the Lord. He is “a voice crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” So he is a messenger, that is, a servant whose Master has sent him to perform a task. This helps us see who we are, once we have gotten it straight who we are not: we are servants of the Lord, to whom specific tasks have been entrusted. Some of us actually are messengers, who have been given the task of communicating the word of God in one way or another. But all of us are called to serve, to serve God and our brothers and sisters, but not to serve ourselves—and still less to expect others to serve us.
John’s task was to preach and to baptize. These were the main elements of his mission to prepare the way of the Lord. The preaching was to call the people’s attention to the fact that the Messiah was about to appear in their midst, as well as to get them to realize their need of repentance. His baptism was a symbolic rite through which the people renounced their sins and resolved to change their lives, which is what repentance is all about. John’s baptism did not have the power to actually take away sins, but his baptism prepared the way of the Trinitarian baptism which, after Pentecost, would indeed take away sins. If John’s baptism really could forgive sins, he would not have had to point away from himself to Christ, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”—and then allow his own disciples to leave him and follow Jesus.
John made it clear that there was an essential difference between his baptism and the Lord’s. “I baptize you with water,” he said, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” That was the main thing: the Holy Spirit wasn’t in John’s baptism, so his was only a preparatory rite. Christian baptism still requires water, but it is water upon which the grace and power of the Holy Trinity are invoked, so that it is indeed a baptism in the Holy Spirit, a fully efficacious rite that cleanses from sin and effects a spiritual rebirth as a son or daughter of God, incorporating the newly-illumined into the mystical Body of Christ.
The thing that has always most impressed me about St John the Forerunner is his complete, undivided, single-minded devotion to the Lord. St John didn’t merely perform a ministry; he was his ministry. He identified wholly with God’s will for his life. He gave up everything to serve the Lord—not just in a formal, symbolic, or partial way, like most people who make religious vows today, but in actual fact and in all practical details. He lived in the desert, wore a hairshirt, hardly ate anything. He lived and breathed his mission, his service of God, with his whole heart and soul.
I recently read the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, in which we find Jesus’ famous saying: “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to accomplish his works.” If there’s anyone else—besides the Mother of God, of course—who could honestly appropriate that saying for himself, I vote for the Forerunner. You know that if someone survives by eating locusts he has no interest in the fine cuisine and other delicacies of this world. His food is to do the will of the Father in Heaven.
Here again we ought to examine ourselves. How do we regard or consider the will of God in our lives? Certainly most Christians at least pay lip service to it, acknowledging (in theory, anyway) that the will of God is what is best for us and should be sought and obeyed above all, especially above our own will. But do we actually regard and experience the will of God as life-sustaining food, an indispensable enrichment, as something for which we hunger and thirst and long, at the expense of everything else? Or do we think of the will of God as a burden, an imposition, something more or less irksome that is always intruding into our lives, upsetting our plans and unmasking us as selfish pleasure-lovers who find labor and sacrifice distasteful and unwelcome?
It seems to me that more people fear the will of God than love it; more people flee the will of God than embrace it. The will of God is commonly, but not entirely accurately, associated with tragedy and suffering, and so people spontaneously recoil from it. But Scripture says that it is God’s will that all be saved, which means that it is his will that we enjoy eternal happiness in Heaven. We need to see the big picture and realize that our ultimate bliss has to be prepared with trial and sacrifice—and when we finally come to see the whole truth in the light of Heaven, we will know that every detail of God’s will had its perfect and indispensable place in our life and salvation.
So we prepare the way of the Lord—in our own interior lives as well as in our immediate environment, and even in the world at large, as far as our words and our prayer may reach. Let us learn from the Forerunner to be forerunners ourselves. Let us maintain a sober and honest estimation of ourselves, knowing in the light of grace what we are and what we are not—so that we do not hinder but rather assist the Lord in accomplishing his works in this world. And let us pray to St John the Baptizer to share with us something of his undivided and unceasing devotion to the Lord, his selflessness, his willingness to serve and sacrifice and even suffer for the sake of his mission, for the sake of doing the Father’s will in this world for the salvation of souls.
We are at the threshold of the great feast of the epiphany of the Holy Trinity at the baptism of Christ in the Jordan. We must prepare our hearts, confess our sins, and enter anew into the mystery of the new, spiritual, and eternal life that has been mystically communicated to us through the sacrament of baptism, and which is renewed and nourished through confession and Holy Communion.
St Paul, in today’s epistle (2Tim. 4:5-8), uses a curious phrase, for which this reading was chosen for this Sunday. He is about to give his life in martyrdom and has realized to his satisfaction that he has fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith. Now a crown of righteousness awaits him, but, he says, not only him but also “all those who have loved [the Lord’s] epiphany.” This covers the whole mystery of the manifestation of the Son of God in the flesh, and all that it implies. Let us be among those who love the Lord’s epiphany, who prepare the way for its imminent celebration and for the ultimate epiphany of the Son of Man on the Last Day.
It may seem, in the face of the increasing evil in the world, that we are nothing more than voices crying in the wilderness. But if our food is to do the will of the Father and to accomplish his works, our voices will resound like the Forerunner’s and will reach Heaven itself, and the fire of the Holy Spirit will descend in purifying power and in everlasting love.