Third (Gaudéte) Sunday of Advent—14
December AD 2008
“I am not the Christ.” “Art thou Elias?” “I am not.”
“Art thou the Prophet?” “No.”
“Well , then, who art thou?”
Saint John the Baptist - Titian - AD 1540
The Mass in Latin and English
Third Sunday of Advent
Dominica Tertia Adventus
Ember Days in Advent
A very good question, from those sent by
the priests of the Temple to interrogate John the Baptist. Who is this man
... what is his function ... how does he relate to coming Messias? What do
we know about John the Baptist?
We know from Saint Luke’s Gospel that
he was the son of Zachary and Elizabeth, and that Zachary was a priest of the
Temple at Jerusalem, who offered the sacrifices of the Mosaic Law.
Indeed, Zachary was in the process of offering the evening sacrifice of incense
when the Angel Gabriel informed him that he was to be the Father of a Son—even
though he and Elizabeth had been childless for many years—something which
surprised Zachary to the point of disbelief in the Angel’s testimony.
The Angel had more to say. John
would be born in the state of grace, “filled with the Holy Ghost, even from
his mother’s womb.” This was not exactly like the Immaculate
Conception of Mary, but John’s role in the plan of salvation was so important
that he would be sanctified and filled with grace, at least from the moment of
his birth. Tradition holds that he was sanctified when the Blessed Virgin,
pregnant with our Lord, came to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth, and “the babe
leapt for joy in her womb.”
Every indication is that like Mary, John persevered in the grace of his birth.
The Angel Gabriel predicted that John
would “bring back to their God many of the children of Israel.”
This would be fulfilled decades later as John preached repentance and baptized
at Bethany on the far side of the Jordan River. Further, John was to be an
ascetic—a hermit who lived far from the comforts of civilization, so as have
very little to distract him from God and from his mission. Luke tells us
that John would “drink no wine or strong drink.” Matthew
recounts that this “same John had his garment of camels' hair, and a leathern
girdle about his loins: and his meat was locusts and wild honey.”
Since the priesthood was hereditary,
pertaining to all the sons of Aaron, John himself was a priest—although the
Scriptures make no mention of him offering the Temple sacrifices.
Above all, John would be the
“precursor,” the one who would go before the Christ, “making straight the
way of the Lord, as said Isaias the prophet.” He would gather the first
crowds, but express no jealousy whatsoever as Jesus Himself began to preach and
to baptize. John urged his disciples to rejoice in the successful mission
of the Christ. John likened himself to the friend of the bridegroom who
rejoices with his friend: “This my joy, therefore, is made full.
He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John fully understood God’s plan, and insisted that all glory belongs to the
Son of God, and that He, John, could take none of it from Him.
In the end, John showed the courage of
the martyrs—those who witness for Christ even in the face of great danger.
In every society, ancient or modern, the vast bulk of the population tries to
“keep its head down” and stay out of trouble. Many people will say
nothing at all, even though they witness great evils in the world around them.
To use a modern metaphor, they are willing to “drink the Kool-aid”
rather than to demand upright behavior. John was one unafraid to “speak
truth to power”: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s
What was John not?
Well, we heard him say that he was not the Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet
Isaias. He would die, but not be resurrected until the last day. He
was a priest of the Mosaic Law, with its numerous animal sacrifices; not a
priest of the New Law offering the one perfect victim according to the Order of
Had it not been for John’s being
“filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb,” it would be
tempting to refer to John as not being at all supernatural—it would be
tempting to think of John as a man who took the natural gifts given to him by
God, and developed them to the full through merely natural means. He did
not have the supernatural gifts that we associate with the Apostles and every
Christian Saint. There is no record of him receiving Christian
Baptism—quite surely he never received the Holy Eucharist, nor did the Holy
Ghost descend upon him in sacramental Confirmation. Yet he seems to have
lived a life of religious perfection.
There is a certain advantage in
considering this natural perfection. Many of us feel that the perfection
of Jesus Christ or even the perfection of His Virgin Mother, is beyond normal
human ability. That is not an excuse not to strive for the perfection of
Jesus or Mary, but many will view the imitation of God and God’s Mother as
being as nearly unattainable as anything can be in this world. The
perfection of John the Baptist is great, but natural human perfections seem, at
least in principle, to be far more attainable.
At least in principle, we can imagine
ourselves doing without the “soft garments,” and the fine wines. and many of
the unnecessary comforts of civilization. Without too much difficulty, we
can imagine ourselves telling others about the moral law and the need for
repentance—telling them about the Christ who has come into this
world—bringing them to church to hear the sermons, even if we don’t feel
capable of preaching them ourselves.
At least in principle, we can imagine
ourselves standing up for what is right—“speaking truth to power” even
when it is inconvenient, unprofitable, or even dangerous.
And, indeed, we should be trying to
imitate the perfection of Saint John the Baptist in all of these things which we
say we can do “in principle.” What we can do “in principle,” we
ought to do in reality.
But, before we close, let is remember
that John did have the grace of the Holy Ghost working for him. Quite
likely, John would have been nothing of the natural man he was without that
supernatural grace. Grace doesn’t replace nature—grace builds on
nature—grace perfects nature—but nature is there to begin with.
Recognize how much more fortunate we are
than the Baptist! We too have the Holy Ghost dwelling in our
souls—and we have more. We can attend the offering of the perfect
Sacrifice of Jesus Christ, renewed daily at Mass for the increase of grace and
the forgiveness of sins. Daily, we can come face to face and heart to
heart with our Lord in Holy Communion. And, should we fail, we can return
to the state of grace with just a few words uttered in Confession.
“In principle,” we can be every bit
as much the saint as John the Baptist was. And once again, what we can do
“in principle,” we ought to do in reality.