The Gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent always focus on John the Baptist. Since we are again in Lectionary Year A, the two selections are from Matthew 3:1-12 and 11:2-11, respectively. Given that John the Baptist is mentioned in quite a few other passages of Matthew’s Gospel (3:13-15; 4:12; 9:14-17; 11:12-19; 14:1-12; 16:13-14; 17:10-13; 21:23-27, 32), one might ask: Why were these two passages from chapters 3 and 11 chosen?
The short answer: They both deal with John’s role in preparing for Jesus, making them particularly suited for Advent.
But how? On the 2nd Sunday of Advent each year, the Gospel reading presents the preaching of John the Baptist. Although we normally call him “the Baptist,” Matt 3:1-12 does not focus on his baptizing activity as much as on other aspects of his ministry: John as Preacher/Prophet, and John as the Forerunner to Jesus. Contrary to today’s popular misconceptions, biblical prophets do not merely or even primarily “predict” the future. Rather they “speak on behalf of God” (Greek pro-phemi), and they do this through both their words and their actions. Thus, John not only talks like a prophet (preaching a message of repentance), but he also acts like one (as Matthew describes his clothing and diet in the desert). John not only calls all people in general to repent, but he has particularly harsh words for some of the more “religious” people, challenging them to show their repentance in their actions, to “produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (3:8), as all other biblical prophets also did.
Near the end of this reading, Matthew portrays John in a related, but slightly different role: that of a forerunner to Jesus. John is quoted as speaking about “the one who is coming after me,” who “is mightier than I” (3:11), which makes this selection especially appropriate for Advent. The strong focus on judgment, however (“the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”; 3:12), might not seem very “Christmassy” to many people. Yet it can remind us that during Advent (and all year long) Christians are not only preparing to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus from 2000 years ago, but are also preparing for the future coming of the Son of Man, the Day of the Lord, the Final Judgment, or whatever else we call the ultimate future that all the Advent readings call to our attention.
On the 3rd Sunday of Advent this year, we read the episode in which John, already in prison, sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (11:3). Jesus does not respond directly, but simply points out that he is doing the things Isaiah mentions in describing a time (the messianic age, in Christian interpretation) when people will experience God’s glory and splendor, restoration and salvation (alluding to Isa 35:1-6, this Sunday’s first reading).
As I was giving an Advent retreat recently, several of the participants were disturbed by the implications of this story from Matthew 11. Why did John the Baptist question whether Jesus was the Messiah? Wasn’t he a prophet? Hadn’t God already told John that Jesus was the one? How could he now not know what God had previously revealed to him? Such questions provided for some interesting conversations among the retreatants. We discussed how it is quite natural for all people, even great biblical prophets like John or modern saints like Mother Teresa (and evidently also Jesus himself, in Gethsemane) to have doubts or be confused at times. We believe, we trust God, but when things sometimes turn out very differently than we might have expected (John in prison, death looming ahead of him, the messianic age not yet fulfilled), we naturally question and doubt, but hopefully also seek to understand what God might be doing.
John had to face many hardships with patient endurance (cf. James 5:7-10, the second reading), so he was indeed a great prophet, a messenger who prepared the way, one who still calls us to repent and make ready as we await the coming of the Lord.
The Good Word – Fr. Felix Just SJ
December 06, 2007