We often see old war films showing a scene of two uniformed armed forces personnel ringing the doorbell of an average home, the door is opened, and the woman answering sees the soldiers and immediately swoons. No words are needed for her to know the news is dire. These messengers are doing their duty, but it is not a pleasant one. Other messengers are welcomed with open arms and joy, for example, when the boss’s secretary brings out the vacation schedule and the laborer has gotten the vacation time requested or when the child brings home an improved report card to the parents. Still other messengers might leave us wondering, uncertain, searching.
In this gospel John is the messenger for “One mightier than I [who] is coming after me.” His message was new and startling: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” No doubt John’s hearers received his message with wondering, uncertain, searching hearts.
John was a desert ascetic whose mission was to prepare the people for a life-transforming change—the Lord is coming! Who is this Lord? One mightier than John. How so? John announces the nearness of salvation; Jesus is the salvation. John baptizes with water, Jesus with the Holy Spirit. What does this mean? Jesus’ baptism instills God’s very Life through the power of the Holy Spirit within us. Baptism with the Holy Spirit trans¬forms our preparation into fulfillment—the Lord has come!
Here is the key to grasping John’s message: by our encountering the Lord, our own wondering, uncertainty, and searching about the meaning of John’s message is dispelled. John’s humility as depicted in the words of this gospel (“One mightier than I”) did not rest in a false sense of his own worth, but instead on his own deep conviction about who Jesus is, a conviction that only could come from his having encountered the One whom he proclaimed. Like John, we too must personally encounter the very One whose messengers we, too, are to be. Encounter with the Lord’s Presence opens us to the Spirit with whom we’ve been baptized, enabling us to have greater clarity about the message and the One whom we proclaim by the quality of our own holy living.
John the Baptist diverted attention from himself to Jesus. His ministry was not about himself but about the “One mightier than I [who] is coming after me.” He proclaimed repentance, prepared for Jesus, died—this was the pattern of John’s life. Actually, it’s the pattern of Jesus’ life, too: he proclaimed the Good News, prepared the way to the Father, died.
Further, it’s the pattern of our own paschal mystery living: proclaim the gospel of repentance, prepare for Christ’s many comings, die to ourselves.
During this Advent are we primarily preparing ourselves for life-transforming change or merely preparing to celebrate a secular Christmas? What are our expectations? How does John the Baptist challenge us with a new set of expectations? Who helps us listen to John and respond? What prepares us to open ourselves to respond more fully to the Spirit with whom we have been baptized? Do our responses show that we know our expectations will be exceeded? What really prepares us for the changes the coming of the Lord will bring into our lives?