During the Advent season, John the Baptist is a key figure, primarily because he speaks of the “coming” of Jesus. If we look at Matthew 3:1-12, the focus becomes a bit clearer. John says “…the kingdom of heaven is NEAR.” (Matt. 3:2) Further down in the Gospel reading, John says, “…one who is more powerful than I is coming AFTER me….” (Matt. 3:11) The capitalized words speak of a proximate future.
And yet, John’s role in this Gospel reading appears to indicate that he is a link between the two Testaments. Isaiah the prophet is cited as if he were speaking of John. Then there are some references that are relevant to both Testaments, namely, “desert” and “saving water.”
First of all, the “desert.” The desert, in biblical thinking, is seen as a place of purification. It is in the Sinai desert where the people Israel, after having been freed from the Egyptians, experienced a covenant relationship with God. In fact, the journey from Egypt to the “promised land” was known as the Exodus, a saving event by God for the people Israel. But during that journey there were many opportunities for Israel to dis-establish and re-establish the covenant relationship. Hence, in the Gospel reading, the “desert” becomes the locale for people to be tested regarding their acceptance of the “coming” Jesus.
Secondly, “saving water.” During Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, they were able to avoid the pursuing Egyptians when the waters of the sea opened up for them, and closed for the Egyptians. Thus, the parting of the sea became for Israel a great manifestation of God’s love for his people. In the Gospel reading, “baptism” is viewed as the saving water.
For John, penance (the Greek ‘metanoia’ means a turning around of moral behavior) is necessary before baptism. When John speaks of Jesus’ baptism, it will include the Holy Spirit. The word ” spirit” (pneuma in Greek, ruah in Hebrew) can also mean the “creative power of God.” Most likely, we can say that John’s baptism had to do with the past (repentance before baptism) and Jesus’ baptism had to do with the present and the future. By that I mean that John’s baptism demands penance before the “saving water” of baptism. Jesus’ baptism includes the “creative power of God” which keeps on functioning.
What can we learn from the above Gospel reading? Above all, we can appreciate John the Baptist as a good model forAdvent as a way of preparing for the coming of Christ. The “desert” can be for us a place of self evaluation. Sufferings and the like will be excellent means of preparation. Penance, if necessary. We can also reflect on the importance of our own baptism. What has it done for me? Better yet. What can it do for me? Let me count the ways…. Taking into account the “desert” and “saving water” themes, and making them functional for Advent, then, like John, I can be the voice of one crying in the desert. Even though no one wants to listen.