In the middle two Sundays of Advent we hear a lot about John the Baptist. He is a central figure in the Bible and in the history of our salvation since he bridges the Old and New Testaments. It makes sense that John the Baptist is seen as the last of the Old Testament Prophets and the picture painted of him in the the Gospel certainly makes him look and sound like one of the prophets of old. John is presented as someone who lives at the very extremes of society but whose message of conversion hits home with people of every demographic.
Every part of him, such as his garment of camel hair and his diet of locusts and wild honey, highlight John as a most extraordinary person. Although he comes across to us as eccentric, we find that people respect him for his integrity and flock to receive Baptism at his hands. The ordinary people recognize that John's message is authentic and it comes from God.
Not everyone hears good news from John. His opinion of the Jewish leaders is brutal. He calls the Pharisees and Sadducees a 'brood of vipers' because they come to him for Baptism without truly repenting of their sins. Their mindset is similar to that of a wealthy man who told Mark Twain, "Before I die, I will go to the Holy Land. I will climb Mount Sinai and read aloud the Ten Commandments." Mark Twain replied, "I have a better idea. You could stay home and keep them."
If we read the scriptures with any degree of attention, we see very clearly two truths repeating themselves over and over, from Genesis to Revelation: 1) God cannot resist reaching out to repentant sinners, 2) God cannot stand the self-righteous hypocrite.
Depending on which character we resemble most, will determine how we respond to the message of John the Baptist in our own lives. How do we receive the call to repent, stop sinning, and prepare the way of the Lord. Truthfully, many people do not want to hear any preaching about sin. Many Catholics no longer believe in the concept of personal sin, which is a tragedy for them, for the Church, and for our world.
We live in a society which has explained sin away. Perhaps this explains why so few go to Confession? Nowadays we are trained to feel guilty about feeling guilty but not about what we have done. If you send people on a guilt trip, God help you because no one else will. You will be called a killjoy, a hater, or something worse. There is a serious problem with this rush to purge all guilt and shame from people’s lives. Jesus and His main man, John the Baptist, speak more often of sin than even of love and this is true throughout all the New Testament. What does this mean? Before love can take root in our hearts and our lives, sin must first be acknowledged and addressed.
In the 1970’s there was a line in a novel that became famous. It said something like “love means never having to say you're sorry.” John the Baptist would beg to differ! Why else would he have come in from the desert "proclaiming a baptism of repentance that led to forgiveness of sin?" The Gospels tell us people accepted his message wholeheartedly, repented of their sins, and were baptized. In other words, as their love of God increased, they realized they had to say they were sorry.
Today John the Baptist would probably be run out of town. He would certainly be condemned on social media as out-of-touch, dangerous to people’s mental health, or hateful. People would probably be calling for his resignation and maybe even his head. Perhaps the same would be said about Jesus, who never separated his message of love and mercy from the need for repentance and conversion.
To airbrush sin away is to turn Christianity into nothing more than a cult of feelings and sentimentality. To try to dilute it, sugarcoat it, or explain it away is to sell Christ out. If sin isn’t really that bad, why did Jesus choose to die to save us from it? To promote this worldview is not loving others, it is enabling a lifestyle that ultimately leads to pain and suffering, not only for the sinner but also for those affected his or her wayward choices. Sadly, even in many Catholic high schools and colleges, our young people are being told there is no right or wrong, only different points of view. Can you imagine what John the Baptist would have to say to that? And what he would say to those who promote this dangerous nonsense?
The process of repentance and conversion is a healthy experience on many different levels. Every human person has a basic notion of right and wrong written on their heart by God. Every time we violate his sacred and natural law, we carry that burden of guilt. That feeling of guilt, our conscience, is actually a gift from God to help us move away from the things that cause spiritual harm and it keeps us from becoming unfeeling psychopaths. Repentance and conversion repair the damage of our sins and restore the friendship we have with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God makes it so easy for us by giving us the sacrament of confessions. Once we acknowledge,"I have sinned!”, God immediately says, "I forgive you.”
We have many wonderful examples of repentance in our Church; one in particular is our first Pope. When Peter denied Christ, he did not make excuses. He did not blame his sin on the mistakes of his parents. Peter took responsibility for his betrayal of Christ. He did not say, "Hey, give me a break. It's only my first betrayal.” He acknowledged his sin and repented and Jesus couldn’t wait to forgive him.
As crazy as it seems, each and every baptized person is called to be another John the Baptist: leading others to Christ and calling the world to conversion. But we have to start with ourselves. If we go straight to calling out the sins and shortcomings of others without addressing our own need for repentance and conversion, we will quickly be exposed as hypocrites and frauds. God knows, we don’t need any more of those in the world or in the Church. John the Baptist is a model for us and his message resonates with the people of every age because he started by examining and purifying his life. You and I must do the same and we make it happen by asking for the grace of conversion, accepting the virtue of humility, reflecting on the good and bad things we have done, maintaining a strong connection to God in prayer, and, most importantly, making use of the sacrament of confession to express our remorse for our sins. These are the ways we “Prepare the way of the Lord” and “make straight his paths.” May we acknowledge the sin we have in our lives so that God can use us to spread his message of mercy and salvation to the people of our time who are waiting for an invitation to conversion!