First Advent Sermon 2023
John the Baptist, the moralist and the prophet
Fr. Raniero Card. Cantalamessa, O.F.M.Cap.
There is a progression in the Advent liturgy. In the first week, the prominent figure is the prophet Isaiah, the one who announces the coming of the Savior from afar; on the second and third Sunday, the guide is John the Baptist, the precursor; in the fourth week, all attention is concentrated on Mary. Having in the program only two meditations this year, I thought I would dedicate them to the last two of them: the Forerunner and the Mother. In the iconostasis of the Orthodox brothers, the two stand one on the right and the other on the left of Christ and are often represented as two “ushers” on either side of the door that leads into the sacred enclosure.
John the Baptist, preacher of conversion
In the Gospels, the Forerunner appears to us in two different roles: that of a preacher of conversion and that of a prophet. We dedicate the first part of the reflection to the moralist and the second to the prophet.
Some verses from the Gospel of Luke are sufficient to give us an idea of the Baptist’s preaching:
He said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance…The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” He said to them in reply, “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?” He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”(Lk 3:7-14)
The Gospel allows us to see what distinguishes, on this point, the preaching of the Baptist from that of Jesus. The leap in quality is expressed in the clearest way by Jesus himself: “The Law and the Prophets up to John: from then onwards the kingdom of God is announced and everyone strives to enter it.” (Lk 16:16)
We must avoid simplistic contrasts between Law and Gospel. Immediately after the statement just quoted, Jesus (or maybe the evangelist) adds: “It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest part of a letter of the law to become invalid.” (Lk 16: 17). The Gospel does not abolish the law, that is, concretely, the commandments of God; but it inaugurates a new and different relationship with them.
What is new is the order between the commandment and the gift, that is, between the law and grace. At the basis of the Baptist’s preaching is the statement: “Repent and thus the kingdom of God will come to you!” At the basis of Jesus’ preaching is the statement: “Repent because the kingdom of God has come to you!” (Let us remember the word of Jesus just quoted: “The Law and the Prophets until John: from then on the kingdom of God is announced and everyone strives to enter it”).
It is not just a chronological difference, as between a before and an after; it is also a qualitative difference. It means that it is not the observance of the commandments that allows the kingdom of God to come; but it is the coming of the kingdom of God that allows the observance of the commandments. People did not suddenly change and become better, so that the Kingdom could come to them. No, they are the same as always, but it is God who, in the fullness of time, sent his Son, thus giving them the possibility of changing and living a new life. “For the law was given through Moses, but the grace comes from Jesus Christ”, says John the Evangelist (Jn 1:17). Loving God with all your heart is “the first and greatest commandment”; but the order of the commandments is not the first order, or the first level: above it there is the order of the gift: “We love because he loved us first” (1 Jn 4:19).
It is interesting to see how this newness of Christ is reflected in the different attitude of the Baptist and Jesus towards the so-called “sinners”. John, we have seen, attacks sinners who come to him with fiery words. It is Jesus himself who points out the difference between himself and the Forerunner on this subject: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon’. The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’” (Lk 11:18-19). “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”, asked the Pharisees to the disciples of Jesus (Mt 9:11).
Jesus does not wait for sinners to change their lives before he can welcome them; but he welcomes them and this leads sinners to change their lives. All four Gospels – Synoptic and John – are unanimous on this. Jesus does not wait for the Samaritan woman to put her private life in order before spending time with her and even asking her to give him something to drink. But in doing so he changed the heart of that woman who became an evangelizer among her people. The same thing happens with Zacchaeus, with Matthew the publican, the adulteress and the anonymous woman who kisses his feet in Simon’s house.
We cannot draw an absolute norm from these examples. Jesus was Jesus and he read hearts; we are not Jesus; the two ways, moreover, do not contradict each other. The Church cannot ignore, however, the style of Jesus or place it on the same level as that of the Forerunner. Jesus disapproves of sin infinitely more than the most rigid moralists could do, but he proposed a new remedy in the Gospel: not distancing, but acceptance. Changing one’s life is not the condition for approaching Jesus in the Gospel; however, it must be the result (or at least the purpose) after approaching him. God’s mercy, in fact, is without conditions, but it is not without consequences!
On this point, Holy Mother Church has much to learn from today’s mothers and fathers. We all know the tragedies that tear many parents apart today: children who, despite their good example of Christian life and their good advice, take a path opposite to theirs, destroying themselves with drugs, sex abuse, early choices that turn out to be wrong and often tragic…But do parents close the door in their faces and chase them out of the house? They can’t help but respect their choice, as God respects it, and continue to love them. This dramatic situation of society is reflected in that of the Church. We are called to choose between the model of John the Baptist and the model of Jesus, between giving preeminence to the law, or giving it to grace and mercy.
There is one point on which there is no need to choice, because John and Jesus are in perfect agreement. We too should raise our voices on it. It is what John expresses with the words: “Whoever has two tunics should give one to him who has none, and whoever has something to eat should do the same” (Lk 3:11) and that Jesus inculcates with the parable of the rich man, and with the description of the final judgment in Matthew 25.
John the Baptist, “more than a prophet”
Now let’s move on to the second role, or title, of John the Baptist. He is not just a moralist and a preacher of penance; he is also and above all a prophet: “You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High” (Lk 1:75). Jesus defines him as “more than a prophet” (Lk 7:26).
In what sense, we might ask, is John the Baptist a prophet? Where does the prophecy lie in his case? The prophets announced a future salvation. But John the Baptist does not announce future salvation; he points to someone who is present. In what sense then can he be called a prophet? Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel helped the people to overcome the barrier of time; John the Baptist helps the people to overcome the even thicker barrier of contrary appearances. How can the long-awaited Messiah, the one announced by the prophets, promised in the Psalms, be that man with such ordinary and modest appearances and origins?
It is easy to believe in something grandiose, divine, when it appears in an indefinite future – “in those days”, “in the last days”… -, in a cosmic setting, with the heavens dripping with sweetness and the earth opening up to make the Savior germinate. More difficult is when you have to say, “Now! It’s here! It’s this!” The man is immediately tempted to say: “Is that all?” ”Can anything good come from Nazareth?”, they said.
It is the scandal of God’s humility who reveals himself “under contrary appearances”, to confuse men’s pride and “will to power”. Believing that the man they saw shortly before eating, sleeping, perhaps even yawning upon waking up, is the Messiah, the one waited by everyone; believe that the time has reached its fullness: this required greater prophetic courage than that of Isaiah. This is a superhuman task and we understand the greatness of the precursor and why he is defined as “more than a prophet”.
All four Gospels highlight the dual role of John the Baptist, that of moralist and that of prophet. But while the Synoptics insist more on the first, the Fourth Gospel insists more on the second. John the Baptist is the man of the “Ecce!”, of the Behold!: “Behold the man of whom I spoke…Behold the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:15.29). What a shiver must have run through the bodies of those who, with these or other similar words, first received the revelation. It was like a short circuit: past and future, expectation and fulfillment touched each other.
What does John the Baptist teach us as a prophet? Is his prophecy still alive or did it end that day? I believe that he left us his prophetic task. Saying: “There is one among you whom you do not know!” (Jn 1:26), he inaugurated the new Christian prophecy, which does not consist in announcing a future salvation, but in revealing the hidden presence of Christ in the world, in tearing the veils from people’s eyes, as if shouting, with the words of Isaiah: “God is doing something new! Do you not perceive it?” (see Is 43:19).
Jesus said, “I am with you always until the end of the world.” He is among us; he is in the world and the world even today, after two thousand years, does not recognize him. There is a saying of Jesus that has always worried believers: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8). But Jesus does not speak here of his coming at the end of the world. In the so-called eschatological discourses, two perspectives are often intertwined: that of the final coming of Christ and that of his coming as resurrected and glorified by the Father, which Paul defines as his coming “with power according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom 1, 4), in contrast to the previous coming “according to the flesh”. It is in reference to this coming according to the Spirit that Jesus can say: “This generation will not pass away until all this happens” (Mt 24:34).
That disturbing phrase of Jesus therefore does not question our posterity, those who will find themselves living at the moment of his parousia; it questions our ancestors and it questions our contemporaries, including us. Despite his resurrection and the wonders that accompanied the beginning of the Church, did Jesus find faith among his people? Despite two thousand years of his presence in the world and all the confirmations of history, does he still find faith on earth, especially among the so-called “intellectuals”? The prophetic task of the Church will be the same as that of John the Baptist, until the end of the world: to shake each generation from its terrible distraction and blindness that prevents it from recognizing and seeing the light of the world.
At the time of John Baptist the scandal derived from the physical body of Jesus; from his flesh so similar to ours, except in sin. Even today it is his body, his flesh that scandalizes, his mystical body, the Church, so similar to the rest of humanity, not even sin excluded. Just as John the Baptist made his contemporaries recognize Christ under the humility of the flesh, so it is necessary today to make him recognized in the poverty of the Church – and in the poverty of our own lives.
An evangelization “new in fervor”
Saint John Paul II characterized the new evangelization as an evangelization – I quote – “new in fervor, new in methods and new in expressions”. John the Baptist is our teacher above all in the first of these three things, fervor. He is not such a great theologian; he has a very rudimentary Christology. He does not yet know the highest titles of Jesus, such as Son of God, Word, or Son of man.
He uses very simple images. “I am not worthy – he says – to untie the ties of his sandals …“ But, despite the poverty of his theology, how he manages to make us feel the greatness and uniqueness of Christ! The world and humanity appear, from his words, all contained as if inside a winnowing winch, or a sieve, which he, the Messiah, holds and shakes in his hands. In front of him it is decided who stands and who falls, who is good wheat and who is chaff that the wind scatters. Following the example of St. John the Baptist everyone can be an evangelizer!
Commenting on the words of John Paul II that I mentioned, someone pointed out that the new evangelization can and must be new “in fervor, in method and in expression”, but not in the contents which remain those always deriving from revelation. In other words: that there can and must be a new evangelization, but not a new Gospel.
All this is true. There cannot be truly and totally new content. There may, however, be new contents, in the sense that they were not highlighted enough in the past and had remained in the shadows or little valorized. Saint Gregory the Great said: “Scriptura cum legentibus crescit” (Moralia in Job, 20, 1, 1), the Scripture grows with those who read it. And in another passage, he explains why. “In fact – he says – one understands [the Scriptures] all the more deeply the deeper the attention he pays to them” (Hom in Ez. I, 7, 8). This growth is achieved first of all on a personal level in growth in holiness; but it is also realized on a universal level, as the Church advances in history.
What sometimes makes it so difficult to accept the “growth” of which Gregory the Great speaks is the lack of attention given to the history of the development of Christian doctrine from its origins to today, or a very superficial knowledge of it. This history demonstrates, in fact, that this growth has always been there, as Cardinal John Newman demonstrated in his famous essay.
Revelation – Scripture and Tradition together – grows according to the questions and provocations that are posed to it throughout history. Jesus promised the apostles that the Paraclete would guide them “into the whole truth” (Jn 16, 13), but he did not specify in how long time: whether in one or two generations, or – as everything seems to indicate – for the whole time that the Church is a pilgrim on earth.
The preaching of John the Baptist offers us the opportunity for an important observation precisely regarding this “growth” of the word of God that the Holy Spirit operates in history. The liturgical and theological tradition has collected, above all, his cry of the Baptist: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” The Liturgy proclaims it at every Mass before communion, after the people have sung three times: “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us”.
In reality, however, this is only half of his prophecy about Christ. He adds immediately, almost in one breath and in all four Gospels, that Jesus Christ is the one “ who baptizes with the Holy Spirit!” (Jn 1:33; Mt 3.11). Christian salvation is not, therefore, just something negative, “taking away sin”. It is above all something positive: it is a “giving”, an instilling new life, the life of the Spirit. It’s a rebirth.
The remission of sin appears to be the way and the condition for the gift of the Spirit which is the ultimate purpose, the supreme gift. The third chapter of the Letter to the Romans on the justification of the wicked must never be separated from the eighth chapter on the gift of the Spirit, with that liberating message that should resonate more often in our preaching: “Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death.” (Rom 8: 1-2).
Of course, this positive aspect has never been forgotten. But perhaps not enough emphasis has always been placed on it. We have run the risk, especially in the West, of seeing Christianity, in a “negative” way, as the solution to the problem of original sin; as something, therefore, gloomy. This explains, at least in part, its rejection by large sectors of culture, such as those represented, in philosophy, by Nietzsche and, in literature, by the Norwegian playwright Ibsen. The current greater attention given to the action of the Holy Spirit and his charisms in all Christian Churches is a concrete example of Scripture “growing with those who read it”.
The saints love to continue, from heaven, the mission they carried out while alive on earth. Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus – whose 150th anniversary of her birth is this year – put this as a kind of condition to go to heaven. Saint John the Baptist also loves to be the precursor of Christ, he loves to prepare the paths for him. Let us lend him our voice!
Contemplating the icon of the Forerunner in the Deesis, with his hands extended towards Christ and a pleading gaze, the Orthodox Church addresses a prayer to him that we can make our own:
The hand that touched the head of the Lord and with which you pointed out to us the Savior, now extend it, O Baptist, towards him in our favor, by virtue of that assurance which you largely enjoy, since, according to his own testimony, you were the greatest of all the prophets; the eyes that saw the Holy Spirit descending in the form of a dove, turn them to him, O Baptist, so that he may show us his grace. Amen.