“. . . among those born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist”

Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11

Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins. A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. Go up on to a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care.

2 Peter 3:8-14

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard "delay," but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out. Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. John was clothed in camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey. And this is what he proclaimed: "One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

The greatness of John the Baptist is foretold by an angel (before his birth rf Lk 1:14-17) and his father Zachary (after his birth rf Lk 1:75-77). Both Mark and John choose to begin their gospels by introducing Jesus through him. Besides being the precursor of Christ, many acknowledge John’s significance as the last prophet of the Old Testament whose arrival ended the nearly four hundred years of prophetic silence (between the time of Malachi and the coming of the Messiah) in the history of Israel. As the hinge joining the Old and the New Testament, many see that he is also the pivotal figure in the history of salvation. Standing astride the old and the new eras, John is truly unique. His message embraces both the Law and the Prophets (the “wrath of God” and His coming judgment rf Lk 3:7-9,17; Mt 7-12) as well as the New Covenant (the need of repentance and baptism as the new way for the forgiveness of sins rf Lk 3:3; Mt 3:1-4; Mk 1:4-5). But I would like to point out what makes Jesus say about John (rf Lk 7:28, Mt 11:11) is not because of his honourable status (rf Lk 1:5-6) nor his relation to Jesus (rf Lk 1:36) nor his designated role as the forerunner of the Messiah (rf Lk 1:76-77), but the manner in which he fulfills his office (rf Lk 7:24-26; Mt 11:9-13).

In fervour and zeal, John’s appearance and bold character resemble that of Elijah, the great prophet of the Old Testament (rf Mk 1:6, 6:18; 1 Kgs 18:18; 2 Kgs 1:8). Taken heavenward without dying and prophesied by Malachi, Jewish tradition literally interprets the future return of Elijah as the harbinger of the Lord’s coming (rf 2 Kgs 2:11; Mal 4:5). Jesus Himself affirms that the prophecy of Malachi is fulfilled in the person of John in the spiritual sense (rf Mt 11:13-14, 17:10-13; Mk 9:12-13). When John speaks, clothed with authority as the returning Elijah, people come and listen. They respect him and even the Jewish authorities are aware of his reputation and fear him (rf Mk 1:5, 6:14-15, 20, 11:27-32; Mt 3:5-10, 21:23-26; Lk 3:7-14, 20:1-6). He fearlessly attacks the powerful Pharisees and Sadducees and even confronts Herod the king which eventually leads him to his martyrdom (rf Mk 6:14-29; Mt 14:1-5, 10; Lk 3:19-20).

In humility, John accepts and fully understands his mission. Even though he is renowned and his disciples are growing in numbers, he repeatedly denies that he is the Messiah (rf Mt 3:11,13-14, Mk 1:7-8; Lk 3:15-16; Jn 1:19-20, 26-31). He subordinates himself as only the witness to the Light and the friend of the Bridegroom (rf Jn 1:6-9, 3:27-30), even forfeiting his leadership and invites his disciples to follow Jesus (rf Jn 1:35-39). Spending his entire life preparing for the coming of the Messiah, he humbly recedes into the background when the true Messiah appears (rf Jn 3:25-30).

In poverty and chastity, John leads a life of austerity and asceticism in the wilderness, practising self-denial and renunciation of the world with the single focus of preparing the way for God’s Messiah (rf Mk 1:6-7, 2:18). His own virtue of chastity makes him courageously denounce Herod’s sins of sensuality that finally ends his life. Though John’s life is short and he performs no miracle (rf Jn 10:41), yet his ministry inaugurates a spiritual movement that has great influence long after his death (rf Mk 2:18, Mt 9:14, Lk 5:33). His surviving disciples continue to spread throughout the Mediterranean world, sowing the seed for the New Kingdom (rf Act 18:24-25, 19:1-7).

Being the last in the long line of prophets who predicted Christ (rf Mi 5:2; Deut 18:15-19; Lk 2:30-32; Zech 9:9, 11:12-13, 12:10; Is 9:1-2, 6-7, 7:14, 11:1, 35:5-6, 40:3-5, 52:13-53:12; Jer 31:15, 31 Hosea 11:1; Mal 3:1; Ps 22, 69, 118), John is the only one who has the privilege of seeing Christ in the flesh. John’s words of recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29), echo in every liturgical celebration throughout the ages. Let us remind ourselves that John the Baptist, the only one whose birth and death are celebrated by the Church besides Jesus and Mary, is not just some crazy man with absurd attire and strange diet, who runs wild in the wilderness shouting out loud, but truly is a great man ever born of women (cf Mt 11:11; Lk 7:28).

Posted: December 10, 2017

May Tam

May Tam, Bachelor of Social Science (University of Hong Kong), Master of Theological Studies (University of Toronto)

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