DECEMBER 9, 2010 – ISAIAH 41:13-40 ; MATTHEW 11:11-15

ALL THE PROPHETS PROPHESIED UNTIL JOHN. HE IS ELIJAH, THE ONE SURE TO COME. John the Baptist was at once the greatest and the last of a long line of inspired witnesses to God’s preparation for the definitive intervention in human history that is the Incarnation of His Son. John’s witness began already in the womb, as his mother Elizabeth declared to Mary, when she visited her pregnant cousin.  At the time, the Baptist was a six-month fetus yet, the grace of the Spirit was already active in his soul. He was able to sense in Jesus, who was but a newly conceived embryo, the presence of the Son of God in the womb of Mary. He responded with joyous movement, under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  Obviously, Elizabeth, and Saint Luke who was inspired to record her words after careful investigation as he assures his readers, were fully convinced that not only John but also the infant in Mary’s womb but a few days old, were living persons and bearers of the Spirit already. In the conception of Jesus a new age has begun, in which God intervenes in human history more directly and makes his presence known in the speech and acts of these two mothers who are the first to recognize and witness to the time of fulfillment of the promises made to the Fathers and prophets of ancient times.

As our Lord states expressly in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist is a herald whose very appearance is a fulfillment of a long line of prophecy. He puts it in these words: “it was toward John that all the prophecies of the prophets and of the law were leading; and he, if you will believe me, is the Elijah who was to return.” This association of John with Elijah that Jesus makes here, is a reference to the last prophecy of Malachi 3:23 that reads: “I [the Lord] am going to send you Elijah the prophet before my day comes, that great and terrible day.” His task is to prepare hearts lest God’s coming leads to a curse rather than the greatest of blessings.

And so it is that John the Baptist with his message that warns us to make ready the way of the Lord is the embodiment of Advent. He represents the need to make our hearts ready to welcome the Savior when he comes. This preparation involves serious effort to make sacrifice, to do penance, to turn from worldly ways to prayer. The purple vestments of this season are meant as a sign of this penitential effort that is essential for a change of heart. This interior labor of the heart is the source of joy that arises from the hope that is fulfilled with the presence of the Messiah. John, as austere as his way of life way, became a joyous witness to God’s plan. He spoke of the Lord as the bridegroom at whose voice he, John, rejoiced, just as already in the womb, he had leapt for joy at the presence of the Lord carried in the womb of Mary.

Each age of the Church has had need of John’s witness, and, as Origen had already understood. Writing in the third century, he stated: “I think that the mystery of John is still being carried out in the world. If a man is to believe in Jesus Christ, the spirit and power of John must first come into his soul and prepare for the Lord a perfect people, make the rough ways of the heart plain, make the crooked straight. Even now the spirit and power of John precede the coming of our Lord and Savior.” (Homily on Luke, iv) We are, then, invited by the words of Jesus to heed the witness and message of John during this Advent season, and so to be ready to welcome the Word of God made flesh when he comes to us in our daily life. As in the days of John the times we live in are enveloped in the darkness of unbelief in large part, and the basic moral values that John witnessed to and the faith he lived are largely weakened. Acknowledging that in Jesus a new epoch began that continues in our time is the task we are invited to undertake in this season of Advent and so to put the teaching and example of Christ and his forerunner John that we prepare our hearts to welcome our Savior not only at Christmas, but today and every day of our lives.   

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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