That Irritating John the Baptist

Come, Lord Jesus, come.  In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God now and forever.  Amen.

I don’t know about you, but people who are always putting a negative spin on things really get me down.  They are the doomsayers, the party poopers.  They are the ones who will always see the big black cloud instead of that proverbial silver lining, or who will invariably choose to remind you of all those things that are wrong with your life.  And there is a certain smugness about them, isn’t there?  They think they know what is best for us or for the world, but never for themselves of course.  Indeed, some of these people may even be our best friends—irritating, yes, but our best friends nonetheless.  Which only goes to show how unfathomable and incomprehensible our relationships can sometimes be.  Yet perhaps we need these people more than we think or like to admit.

In today’s gospel, we are introduced to the original party pooper: John the Baptist.  Now what a happy fellow he must have been, to say nothing of his smelly camel’s hair shirt!  Just the kind of guy we’d like to go drinking with.  So what is it about him and those other doomsayers that agitate us so much?  Why do they rattle our cages?  Why do they insist on making our lives so gloomy and so miserable?

There can be lots of reasons for that.  Perhaps they are simply sadistic, and they like to see us squirm.  Or perhaps they think they have the right answers to all our problems.  Or perhaps they do have the answers.  Or perhaps—just perhaps—they are doing it out of genuine love and concern.  And perhaps, hopefully, we can begin to see John the Baptist that way.  I think the real reason why we so often tend to look at him as an irritating and grouchy figure is because he is placed under a rather long shadow in scripture, that of Jesus.  It could not have been easy to play second fiddle to the longed-for Messiah, especially if that Messiah happens to be your first cousin.  When we read John’s strong, perhaps even harsh words calling for repentance and a change of life, we certainly do need to take them seriously.  But we should also remember that he was saying them—indeed, is still saying them to us today—for our own good: out of love; out of a sense of solidarity; out of an honest belief that we are always being called to conversion.  But also, and perhaps most importantly, out of a sincere understanding that the person under whose shadow he lived was, in fact, the real thing, the real Messiah.  That is why John the Baptist still speaks to us today.  We still need to be held accountable, and moreover, held accountable precisely because of the life and example of Jesus.  So even though John the Baptist can indeed be irritating, he’s really doing it for our own good.  Just like that loveable, but occasionally irksome, best friend.

John the Baptist is, together with Mary, an iconic Advent figure.  He stands betwixt and between, at the beginning, in an atmosphere of hope and expectation.  He is the one who calls us to change our lives in order to be ready to welcome the One who has longed been promised.  He is the one who reminds us that it is never too late, that redemption is an ongoing work of love.  Actually, when you think about it, we should have a figure of John the Baptist standing in front of the empty stable at the foot of the altar.  That’s because, in an important way, the dawning of the realization of our imminent salvation begins with him.  He actually prefigures Jesus: their lives, as well as their deaths, run parallel.  The two men mirror each other in so many ways, not the least of which is their message.

“Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John the Baptist cries out to the religious leaders of his way, and to us here this morning.  Have we ever listened closely to what that might mean, or do we simply let it flow over us without paying much attention?  It’s a powerful Advent message.  But it’s more than a simple message; it rings like a challenge, almost a command.  This phrase has a slightly different emphasis in French, where the text reads: “Produisez donc un fruit digne de la conversion;” here, the weight is more on conversion than on repentance.  In actual fact, however, they mean the same thing.  Because, as we all know, you can’t have conversion without repentance.  You can’t have a turn turning back to God without some acknowledgement of where we are coming from.  And that place of origin is so often a murky one for us: a place of doubt, and anger, and shame, and perhaps even guilt.  That place of origin imprisons us; it makes us see things only partially, through a glass darkly.  The Baptist is challenging us to see and to act differently.

We have all heard stories of conversion.  There are the great ones, of course: the Samaritan woman, St. Paul, Augustine of Hippo, George Fox, founder of the Quakers, and perhaps the lesser known ones, like Thomas Merton, or Tolstoy, or Dorothy Day.  I think we hold some rather simplistic misconceptions about what conversion means.  We think it’s a radical, sudden, life-shattering and once-and-for-all experience.  We may even think it’s painful or debilitating in some way.  In our hyper-connected and polarized world, we tend to be suspicious of converts of any sort.  We may think they are all humourless and stereotypical fundamentalists, usually of the Muslim variety.  Now it is true that some conversions may be quite dramatic and totally life-altering, but I am quite certain that these are far more the exception than the rule.  When John the Baptist and Jesus speak of conversion, they are referring to that classic formula of a change of heart.  To be converted, therefore, does not necessarily mean to be dramatically and fundamentally altered in some irreversible way—though it might mean that—so much as it means to look at ourselves critically, to turn back to our roots, back to who we really are.  In sum, conversion is a work in progress.  It is always open-ended, always unfinished.

Why is it a work in progress?  Because we know that, deep down, we all could be so much more than who and what we already are.  We all know that our faith and our love of God could be much stronger and more faithful.  We all know that we have failed others, and ourselves, at times in our lives.  Believe me, I am also intensely conscious of talking to myself here.  I too know such things about myself.  That does not mean, however, that I or you should not strive sincerely and patiently to live a converted Christian life.  And it especially does not mean that we are not good people, because we most emphatically are.  But we are flawed, and that is precisely what John the Baptist is challenging us to do when he says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”  In other words, let your actions speak loudly and boldly of your faith.  Let your ways of being in the world reveal that your conversion is ongoing.  Let your deeds show that you know that you can and must do better.  Advent is not a time for sentimental thoughts about baby Jesus.  Advent is a time to look honestly at ourselves in light of our fast-approaching God.

There is a philosophical maxim attributed to Socrates, the great pedagogue of the ancient world: “Know thyself.”  It is a sentiment that we also find expressed in some of the psalms.  Let me recommend it to all of us as an Advent practice.  I am not suggesting that we spend countless hours on some psychoanalyst’s couch.  What I am suggesting is that we take advantage of this rich time at the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year to take an honest and no doubt much-needed look at where we are at in our lives as Christians, and at what we could do differently or even better.  One never knows, you see.  We may find that we aren’t as badly off as we thought.  Or even better, we may find ourselves being converted in spite of ourselves.  Now, wouldn’t that just put that irritating John the Baptist in his place?

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