“Make straight the way of the Lord”+
How did St John the Baptist “prepare” or “make straight” the way for Jesus? And how do we?
He prepares the way and tells others to prepare the way, as is shown by comparing last week's Gospel to today's. That is, by his preaching and baptising he makes the people ready for the One who is the Messiah, the Christ. He successfully fulfilled this ministry, heightening the Jewish people's anticipation of the coming Kingdom of God and allowing his followers to become Jesus' followers.
What made him effective? Three things stand out: Honesty about the need for repentance, self-discipline in personal penance and humility, and pointing away from himself to Jesus as Saviour. And each of these elements were dependent on the other two.
The basic or “core” message of St John the Baptist was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). God is coming to his people. Judgement is about to begin. Admit and confess your sins. Recognise the disease of sin: pride, greed, hate, lust, etc. Reject the darkness. Return to God.
But how much impact would the Baptist have made with this challenge if his own life was corrupt or devoted to ease? Instead, he lives on insects and honey, and in camel hair as clothing. He proclaims he is, nevertheless, unworthy to touch the feet of the One to come. Despite his austere existence, moral rectitude and piety, he knows his littleness and flaws. In other words, he is a man of penitence and discipline. (It is important to remember that John gained his followers and affected multitudes without performing any miracles. His words and character, both filled with the Spirit, were the key. They were miracle enough, in a sense. This is something for all Christians to keep in mind.)
But even these characteristics would not have been enough of themselves. His is an unavoidably unfinished work. Part of his role is to point out this very insufficiency. (That is why he is called St John the Forerunner by the Eastern Orthodox.) He makes it very clear in today's passage, for example, who he is not. And later he points to our Lord, “who takes away the sin of the world” and baptises “with fire and the Holy Spirit” (John 1:29, Matthew 3:11). It is Jesus who can finally deal with the sins of which John told the people to repent. It is Jesus who can remake us from within. St John the Baptist's message did not give the hope of a solution to the problem of sin, except by pointing to Jesus. Yes, it led men and women to repentance, and to a sacramental/ritual enactment of this repentance which was also an enactment of the desire for cleansing (in John's baptism). But his call to repentance would only have become a counsel of despair, a road to nowhere, if he had not shown the way to forgiveness and renewal in Christ. His ministry touched the conscience but did not authoritatively declare remission of sin or cleanse the soul. Morality is not enough. Moral awakening is essential, but not sufficient. Christ is. Grace is.
Likewise, the Church and its members must combine forthrightness about sin and repentance with penitent, humble and holy lives of love. It is not so much our role to accuse others of sin but to proclaim the universal requirement of repentance. (It is ourselves we accuse, whenever we prepare for confession, whether general or special.) We speak as forgiven sinners to those we want to share this forgiveness. Nevertheless, the humility this demands must join together with the holiness that grows as we follow through with repentance from sin: to "bear fruit worthy of repentance", as St John the Baptist put it (Matthew 3:8). And, most of all, we must direct the gaze of all to “Christ, and Him crucified”. We must point to the Cross and the hope it offers. +