It’s very easy for us to want to be like everyone else out there. God chose His people to be uniquely His own, but very often they identified more readily with entirely worldly values. They wanted to be like the other nations — especially in the matter of kingship. The judges who helped Moses in his unenviable task of keeping the people of Israel faithful to the covenant discouraged the people from seeking kings. But God relented and gave them their king, and of course, the whole enterprise ended up being a mess from top to bottom.
We are often tempted, especially in today’s world, to be like others. And yet we were summoned, chosen in Baptism, to be in relationship, in a distinctive way, with a loving God. Having this great vocation, we should ask ourselves constantly as we examine our consciences, “Am I fulfilling my side of my covenant relationship with God?” Almost always, we have to admit that we are not.
That is why, in preparing for Christmas during this season of Advent, the importance of honesty with God is highlighted. It only makes sense, of course, to be honest to God because God knows everything about us. He knows our inmost thoughts and the secrets of our hearts. And yet so often we try to hide from Him. This is what happened in Israel. As the kings strayed further and further away from the ideal, there arose the prophets, who became more and more important in salvation history.
The prophets acted as the conscience of the people of
Israel, exhorting them to return to faithfulness to the God Who loved them.
What a difficult and dangerous vocation it was (and is) to be a prophet, having
to speak truths that are extremely unpalatable to others — and to suffer for
it. But this is part of the prophetic vocation — to accept the consequences of
telling the truth. Another part of the prophetic vocation is to inspire the
longing of God’s people for the One Who would come to restore them to
friendship with their Creator. Longing and love must go together.
I remember as a child longing to be baptized and begging my parents to let me. They probably thought I was very odd indeed, but I prayed for it for years. And then one day I encountered Venerable Fulton Sheen. He was preaching in the cathedral in Saint Louis, where I was a choirboy, and I was introduced to him. My future godmother told the bishop that I wanted to be baptized and said that he responded, “The first thing he must do is long for that above all things and pray for it.” And that’s what I did. And here I am today.
This is what the prophets do: They enable the people to long for God. There were many great prophets, and this process of longing and waiting and yearning went on for centuries. At the heart of this was the longing for the Savior, a King Who would restore Israel’s relationship with God. Of course, they thought he would be as a political figure, a warrior, and many were surprised and even disappointed by the real thing.
But we should not be disappointed, because the prophets’ message of repentance is central to our understanding of the hope and light that should inspire our Advent preparations.
We know that the Savior was a Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, vulnerable yet all powerful. Let us ask for the grace to long to be united with God, to realize more fully our baptismal calling, and to take up in our lives a sense of the prophetic nature of the Christian vocation.
Longing implies waiting, but in the modern world there is instant gratification of almost all our instincts, bad and good. A certain credit card once advertised that it “took the waiting out of wanting.” What a dangerous motto! Part of the whole point of wanting is that we often have to exercise patience to receive what we long for. In this way, our love can grow for what is worthy, and fade for what is not. When we have instant gratification, this diminishes the value we place on the things we long for.
But in loving and trusting God, this can never be the case. He gives us at every moment of our lives exactly what we need. It is a beautiful paradox: He fulfills us, but at the same time He increases our longing for Him. God loves us so much that He wants us to long for Him.
The prophets came to communicate this truth, but prophecy ceased for many centuries in Israel. There were chastisements, exiles, returns, the rebuilding of the Temple, and many more dramas — but prophecy stopped, and the institutions of Israel were developed through the Scribes, the Pharisees, the teaching of the rabbis, and the law. This is an enormous difference between the old and the new dispensation: In the Old Covenant, the law, not longing and love, was the expression of fidelity.
But then the last of the great prophets arrived on the scene, and what an extraordinary figure he was. Each of the prophets had a particular outward sign to capture the imagination of their listeners. And this prophet, a man called John, had as his sign baptism, washing in the River Jordan, as a sign of repentance. It was John’s great vocation to be the messenger chosen by God from his mother’s womb to usher in the unthinkable.
John preached repentance. This is a very strong word; in Greek it is metanoia, a total change of the person. With God’s grace, we have to turn ourselves inside out so that all our neediness, all our pain, all our vulnerability is there for God to heal. This baptism, of course, looked forward to our own Baptism. Our Baptism is an outward sign, too, but unlike John’s, it actually brings about what it stands for, and we are objectively changed. It is symbolic, but not only symbolic. Our Baptism is what enables us, through grace, to continue the process of repentance from all that is not God.
The message of repentance is also a message of hope. It is comforting to acknowledge our neediness before God in trust and faith. We know that only He can heal that brokenness and fulfill that longing. John the Baptist is summoning us to radical transformation. Isn’t it extraordinary: the last of the Old Testament preparing for the fulfillment?
Advent tells us that we must be honest with God, and to do that, we have to learn the virtue of humility. All the virtues are difficult, but with the grace of God, nothing is impossible. Humility, quite simply, is accepting this — accepting Who God is and who I am and what the difference is. Humility is the virtue that’s necessary for all the others to flourish. And once we do that — and this is the lesson of Advent — we will be liberated.
The message of John the Baptist in the desert, in that place of freedom, is that, with repentance, with the washing away of sin, we will be able to stand before God in uprightness. That is true freedom, true hope, true humility. And John the Baptist died for that truth.
Let us pray that we will be a witness of the truth to others. And let us pray that the prophetic dimension of our baptismal vocation will be realized in our hearts.
This article is adapted from a reflection found in Advent Reflections, a collection of homilies and reflections on the Advent season. It is available through your favorite bookstore or online from Sophia Institute Press.