The second and third weeks of Advent are the weeks of John the Baptist. This last Sunday, St. Luke's gospel announces John's mission (Lk 3;1-6), and next Sunday, we will have a summary of his teaching (Lk 3:10-18). There is a temptation to rush off from the announcement of John's purpose to his advise on how to live out lives. But I would like to talk a little about what we can learn from John's calling and his place in salvation history and his response to that calling. There are lessons for us to learn before we move on to John's moral teaching.
In last Sunday's Gospel, Luke says that at a specific point in history, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” And in response to that word, “John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, ...” (Lk 3:2-3)
Luke does not tell us how the word of God came to John, just where – in the desert. For centuries before and after Jesus came to earth, many men who wanted a more spiritual life went off to the desert to pray. There are many reasons for this. First of all, there was lots of desert. Anybody could find it and go there and try to live in that environment. The living was tough – John survived on “locusts and wild honey.” There were predators – both animal and human. But there were few distractions and quiet – deep and profound stillness – suitable to hear “the word of God.” And that's what happened to John.
Maybe that is the first lesson John can teach us. The “desert experience” is important to hearing the word of God.
In the old days, I was taught that Advent was a penitential season – sort of like a mini-Lent. The priest wore violet vestments (just like Lent); there were plenty of opportunities for fasting and abstinence (just like Lent); and even a “relief” Sunday in the middle (Gaudete Sunday compared with Lent's Laetare Sunday). Today, we learn that Advent is not like Lent. First of all, there are blue vestments. Fast and abstinence are gone, although some (especially ethnic families) choose to eat fish on Christmas Eve. But it is (Could be? Should be?) still a period of reflection, a time to avoid distractions and seek out a longer or shorter time of stillness to listen for the word of God.
To the readers who are silently shouting “Are you crazy? There are the parties, the shopping, the wrapping, acts of charity, and so on. Who has time to be still?,” I reply (neither admitting nor denying anything) my sanity has been questioned before. But this time I think that I am on target no matter how crazy it sounds. John did not take the easy way. Remember the locusts. In the end, we are preparing for the coming of the Messiah and the beginning of a new year. The words of the Psalm are “Be still and know that I am God.” If you can find a way to go to the desert for a few brief moments, I think that you will find it rewarding.
The next thing that Luke tells us is that John responded to the word of God. St. James tells us, “Be doers of the word and not hearers only ...” Ja 1:22, that is our second lesson from Luke's story of John the Baptist. [By the way, I suggest that reading the short epistle of James is a good way to enter your desert experience, and it is full of practical advice on how to respond to the word of God.]
I have no idea what “word of God” will come to you in your desert experience, but one thing I do know is that you should answer the call and be doers of the word. John's word was about preaching repentance. If you hear the same message, I caution you about preaching this as boldly as John did. Remember that he lost his head. Your word may (and probably will) be less public and more private. You may be called to preach on a one-to-one basis and maybe more by your actions than your words. You may be called to repentance of your own sins. You may be called to forgive others as you wish to be forgiven. You may be called to something very simple, like loving you neighbor. I only know that if you go to the desert and hear a word, and follow it, this may be the best Christmas present you can give yourself, and there may be people around you who feel gifted as well.
The last thing that Luke tells us in Sunday's gospel is that John followed what had been written about him by Isaiah the prophet. He writes:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’