By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY | Published December 18, 2013
John the Baptist is a dominant figure every Advent season. We find him repeatedly throughout most of these four weeks—on the banks of the River Jordan, in the desert, and according to last Sunday’s Gospel, in Herod’s jail. John is always meandering about during this season of joyful expectation because he is the prophet who consistently points to the future. John proudly proclaims the imminent coming of the Lamb of God and dramatically points him out when he references Jesus.
Jesus, in turn, is quite lavish in His praise of John, and last Sunday’s Gospel passage is perhaps the highest expression of respect that Christ offers to him. “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
According to Jesus, John is the grandest of all of the children ever to have been born—a pretty high compliment indeed! Yet those who are in God’s Kingdom are greater than even John—God’s Kingdom is that society of hope and fulfillment that we all long to enter. God’s Kingdom is always a kingdom of justice. Nevertheless, John is the visionary who points to the One who will usher in that Kingdom—John always points to Jesus as the expected Messiah—not only in John’s own era but in our future as well. It is that dual reference to the Messiah’s birth in time at a certain moment in history but also to His future coming at the end of the ages that is at the heart of Advent.
If we focus too much on Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago, we may only grow sentimental—after all who doesn’t love a baby, whose heart would fail to be touched by a Baby born into poverty? Those sentiments and sensitivities lead many of us to engage in works of charity so that poor kids do receive a gift under the tree, so that destitute families can have a good warm Christmas meal. We gladly take the names of lonely elderly people and make sure that they have a warm winter coat and perhaps some special treat on Christmas day. All of those activities are wonderful and very important. Yet they are transitional in length. Christmas comes and goes while the poor remain.
That is where the other facet of Advent must inspire us. The Baby born into poverty 2,000 years ago will one day return as the final judge of all humanity and will call each one of us to make an account of our lives. John the Baptist warned people that the Messiah would hold them answerable for their lives—and us as well.
John’s warning then and now is for us to repent and be prepared. Our response must be to commit ourselves to work for justice as well as to respond to those in direct need with our immediate charity. That captures what Pope Francis has been reminding the Church and the world since his election and what John reminds us each Advent.
As we continue to prepare for Christmas, our hearts are filled with joy at the anticipation of being with our loved ones, of welcoming those little ones and their uncontrollable excitement into our homes, of the special foods that mark this season. Those are wonderful feelings that fill this season and fill our hearts. But John the Baptist still admonishes us, as he did the folks of his own time, to remember that the Messiah will eventually return as judge and we will be held accountable for how we live righteously and justly and not just at Christmas time—but at all times. John’s message just won’t seem to go away.
May this Christmas be a season of deep and lasting joy for you and all of your loved ones. May 2014 hold every good fortune, good health and enduring happiness for you and all those you love. Merry Christmas and a Blessed 2014, my dear sisters and brothers in the Lord!