Third Sunday of Advent
The figure of John the Baptist wanders through the Advent season, many of the hymns we sing carry his message and refer to his task. Jesus in Matthew's Gospel, speaks of him as a messenger preparing the way of the Lord. Whilst other prophetic writings and utterances are used to foretell the first coming of Christ, John's voice keeps on reminding us of another preparation which we must make for the coming again of the Lord in glory. That's the double meaning of this season; anticipating the great and joyous feasts of Nativity, Motherhood, Epiphany-Theophany and Baptism but raising our sights a little more to the unknown day of Christ's return at the end of all days!
John is very much a desert figure, depicted in iconography with his unkempt long hair, camel skin around him tied with a belt, a prophet-herald, taking on the task of the angels announcing the coming of the Messiah, which is why in some icons he is portrayed with angels wings. Now in prison, his task is nearly ended, for martyrdom is at hand. Yet though Jesus obviously has a huge regard for his earthly cousin, he nevertheless draws out two important points in what he says to John's disciples. Firstly that the work of redemption has begun and can be experienced, blind see, lame walk, lepers are cleansed, in other words these things show the work of the Messiah,
Secondly the values of Kingdom of God mean a complete reversal of what we understand, for in this Kingdom the least are greater than John, whom Jesus praises as one of the greatest figures in human life. John would not care to be described as such, from what we know of him, faithful to his task of messenger and herald, he must decrease so that Christ must increase and the Kingdom flower in human lives and hearts.
But the desert, in which the Baptist lived, where countless monastic followers followed his message, is not simply one of aridity and ascetic confrontation. When the rains come the desert blooms in a magnificent way. Isaiah uses this image to excite us, for, as the plants grow strong so shall we, watered and anointed by Gods Spirit, strengthened and nourished by Word and Eucharist, the food of immortality. We are heralds of the Kingdom, the work of Christ continues on in us. Like farmers and gardeners we grow the seed, as James says: You too must be patient.Make your hearts firm,because the coming of the Lord is at hand. (Jas 5:8)
From the Exeter Book, Anglo Saxon Poem, The Harrowing of Hell. John the Baptists speech.
O Gabriel, how wise and keen you are,
merciful and mindful and mild,
wise in your wits and perceptive in your words!
That you showed when you brought to us
the boy in Bethlehem. Long we had waited,
sitting in sorrow, yearning for peace,
happiness and hope, for when we would hear
God's word speak from his own mouth.
O Mary, you bore for us a courageous king, when you brought to us
that child in Bethlehem! We, trembling
behind the gates of hell, had to wait
in cruel bonds.
Fr Robin Gibbons is an Eastern Rite Catholic Chaplain for the Melkites in the UK. He is also an Ecumenical Canon of Christ Church Oxford