Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness, Vik Muniz 2018, Galeria Nara Roesler.
[John] said: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘make straight the way of the Lord…’” John 1:23
Words and phrases highlighted in red are links to supporting materials.
I think you might agree that the depiction of the Baptist above is different! Firstly, he looks young, instead of the ancient, grizzled creature we usually see. It prompted me into thinking that was true: John was only six months older than Jesus (Luke 1:26-28), who was probably about 30 when John baptized him. We are also told that all sorts of people were traveling out from Jerusalem into the wilderness to see him (Matthew 3:5-6), hence the many diverse depictions of people around him in the picture. Many wanted to be cleansed of their sins, and that, I think, can also be seen in the picture, even with some imagination: on the right hand side is the Wicked Witch of the West! It was Jesus himself who said that even “tax collectors and harlots” were going out to see him (Matthew 21:32). And John dressed and acted for the part, in camel skins, eating locusts and wild honey, in typical prophetic manner, all of which perhaps you can make out in the picture above! In other words, John was a massive hit, the hot “must see” of the moment, so much so that the religious leaders in Jerusalem became interested in him, and sent out scouts to take a look and do an evaluation. He was, after all, prophesying the arrival of “one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” as today’s gospel says. That prompted even more interest. Perhaps the crowd thought John himself was the long-promised Messiah come at last. But today’s gospel states explicitly that John denied this in the strongest possible terms: “I am not the Christ”, meaning not the Messiah, not the Anointed of God, but claimed that he was indeed the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy that he was the voice of one in the wilderness announcing the way of the Lord (Isaiah 20:3). There were disciples of John who did indeed believe him to be the Messiah, and their descendants are among us to this day, the Mandaeans. They consider John to be their last prophet. In other words, John the Baptist was and is a very significant person in history.
John, then, was the first major indication that things were about to change in the Jewish landscape. He clearly impressed people with his sincerity and his message. He was indeed the voice of one in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord, but where is the message for this Sunday in Advent? Clearly each one of us must prepare the way of the Lord also, both spiritually within, but I think also without, doing what we can to prepare the world outside each of us for the arrival of the Christ child. We live these days in a world which is suffering more than before, with this terrible pandemic. It is calling loudly for a savior to end the suffering and death which has come upon us. Clearly an effective vaccine will be one answer, and promises are getting more and more credible as the days go by. But many more than those who have fallen prey to the virus have been affected. Jobs have been lost, companies have closed their doors for the last time. Healthcare workers have put themselves on the line in trying to save and protect us all. It is incumbent upon the majority of us who have not been impacted beyond isolation to help them in any way we can, and also to extend help to those impacted in other ways, especially economic. Christmas is going to be grim experience for too many of us this year, some with no resources even for food, let alone presents for the children. Others will face a Christmas dinner missing beloved members of the family who have passed away because of this plague. Our only hope, apart from a vaccine, is the arrival of the king of peace and hope, which was also born in impoverished circumstances. So it is incumbent upon those of us who are able, because “the Spirit is upon us” as it says in today’s first reading, to help those who have been devastated in this terrible time. In a very small way, hope is reflected in the rose vestments which may be worn on this Gaudete Sunday (gaudete = Latin for joy). It signals how close we are to the birth of Christ, the bringer of hope and joy.
To help us in that, here are the charities designated A+ (Excellent) by Charity Watch which have aimed at those who have been deeply affected by the pandemic both here and abroad:
Comic Relief’s program to end child poverty.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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