By: Rev. Paul Scalia
John the Baptist seems the most unlikely figure for Advent. As we race around, grabbing and consuming goods both durable and edible, John comes along with a message and a life of severity. He wore “a garment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Mt 3:4). His greeting of Israel’s leaders was similarly severe: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Mt 3:7) Probably not the kind of guest you would invite to your Christmas party.
But Mother Church places him before us for a reason. Upon reflection, we realize that John the Baptist is the perfect figure for Advent. He is the precursor of the Savior we await. Contrary to first impressions, he is the messenger of joy. His life and message remind us that Advent is not yet Christmas – that this penitential time leads to joy only if we heed its message. John the Baptist – who leaped for joy in his mother’s womb (cf. Lk 1:42) – is joy’s perfect messenger because he shows us its necessary elements: repentance, humility, and sacrifice.
First, repentance. We confuse joy with pleasure. We think that joy is being content after a good meal; warm and well fed, lounging around in front of the TV, distracted, amused, entertained. But such things are fleeting and fragile. And even the beasts can enjoy them. Christian joy is something deeper and more lasting – indeed, eternal. It is spiritual, not physical – something that works from the inside out. It can coincide with physical and even deep emotional suffering. Most of all, it comes about not because we get our own way but because God’s will is accomplished in us. In short, it comes from union with Him.
So the greatest obstacle to joy is sin, which separates us from the Lord. Thus John’s message of repentance brings joy: it prompts us to leave sin behind and conform our wills to God’s; to reestablish union with Him, our “exceeding joy” (Ps 43:4). Indeed, the mere knowledge of the possibility of being forgiven already causes rejoicing. Because the only sorrow greater than sin is not having a way out of it – being trapped in guilt and shame. The call to repentance announces the One Who alone can free us. In short, our joy is in a Savior. And the only way to attain that joy is to acknowledge our sinfulness, our need to be saved.
Second, humility. John drew a lot of attention to himself. “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan” went out to see him (Mt 3:5). They were ready to accept him as the Messiah.And yet he directed all the attention, honor and reverence to our Lord. We, in our “Look at me!” culture, would delight in such attention. But John sends the crowds to Jesus. His parting words say it all: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).
If sin severs us from joy, pride blocks us from it. Pride insists on my way, that the world be on my terms. That attitude will never find joy, for it demands that it fit within our limited sphere of influence. By insisting that we are the ones who determine what is what, we contract our world and our capacity for joy. In fact, the proud do not really laugh or smile. They sneer at what does not fit in their world and grin smugly at their superiority.
By way of humility – recognizing the truth of our relationship with God – we allow God to define things. And He does so much more broadly that we! Humility means to surrender our own space, not to be concerned about our ego, our own little world. Pride refuses the Lord entry out of fear of not having its own way. Humility rejoices in God – and therefore in all circumstances. “He must increase, but I must decrease.” The Lord’s increase comes first. It gives motivation and meaning to our decrease. It enables us to rejoice in proportion to our diminishment.
Finally, sacrifice. John’s asceticism – the simple clothes, the crude diet – is the first thing we notice about him. He did not live his life for this world. He was not out to make a name for himself, to become wealthy or popular…or even comfortable. His life was constantly being surrendered as a witness to Christ. This death-to-self that he practiced throughout his life realized its ultimate purpose in his martyrdom, his witness to the truth (cf. Mk 6:14-29).
To the world’s eyes nothing could oppose joy more than mortification. The world tells us that joy is found doing your own thing, having whatever you want. And yet the sadness of our culture gives a clue about the error here. We live in the most prosperous culture in the history of the world. Even those of modest means enjoy luxuries that the emperors of the ancient world would envy. And yet our young people seem rudderless. We are discovering that the more we give the young what they want, the less capable and the less happy they seem to be.
John the Baptist shows us that we attain joy only by giving ourselves – by renouncing ourselves and our own desires in the gift of self to another. This renunciation witnesses to the truth of higher, even eternal, goods. It puts false or fleeting “joys” in their place. No love and therefore no joy is possible without it.
The world brandishes before us many false joys. They are nothing more than passing pleasures, some coming with a hefty price tag. John the Baptist extends to us the truest joy – that of being in union with our Lord, experiencing His increase in our hearts, and serving Him generously.