First of all, Isaiah, the prophet of consolation and singer of hope. The idyllic reading from the prophet Isaiah (11:1-10) speaks of a shoot that will sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. This is a reference to the fact that after the Babylonian Exile only a stump of the Davidic dynasty would remain; from it would arise the new shoot, the messianic King.
In verses 2-3 we have the source of the traditional names of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Throughout this season of Advent, Isaiah proclaims a true and proper Gospel for the people of Israel, enslaved in Babylon, and urges them to remain vigilant in prayer, to recognize “the signs” of the coming of the Messiah.
Matthew takes up the order of Jesus’ ministry found in the Gospel of Mark, beginning with the preparatory preaching of John the Baptist.
The Baptist calls for a change of heart and conduct, a turning of one’s life from rebellion to obedience towards God. It is the only condition for recognizing the Messiah already present in the world. The kingdom of Heaven is at hand: “Heaven” (literally, “the Heavens”) is a substitute for the name “God” that was avoided by devout Jews of the time out of reverence.
The expression “the kingdom of Heaven” occurs only in the Gospel of Matthew. It means the effective rule of God over His people.
Matthew presents John the Baptist as the first Christian preacher. Wearing the clothes of a latter-day Elijah, John solemnly proclaims that God is undertaking a new involvement with humankind. At the end of our days on Earth, at the moment of death, we will be evaluated on our acceptance of Jesus’ words and imitation of His life.
God calls each of us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, making our existence, as He did, a gift of love. And the fruit of love is that fruit which “befits repentance,” to which John the Baptist refers while he addresses cutting words to the Pharisees and Sadducees among the crowds who had come for baptism.
John’s whole mission was preparing for the Messiah’s coming. When his own disciples came to him and were troubled about the meaning of Jesus’ baptizing in the Jordan, he answered them confidently: “No one can receive anything except what is given them from Heaven.”
John says that he is only the friend of the bridegroom, the one who must decrease while his master increases (Jn 3:25-30).
The Baptizer defined his humanity in terms of its limitations. When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus’ own testimony to John makes the Baptizer the greatest of all Israelite heroes.
John considered himself to be less than a slave to Jesus: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matt 3:11]). John gave the people of his time an experience of forgiveness and salvation, knowing full well that he himself was not the Messiah, the one who could save. Do we allow others to have experiences of God, of forgiveness and of salvation?
The crowds came to John and asked him, “What then shall we do?” The Baptist didn’t mince words. He advised no one to leave the world they are in, however ambiguous it may be. Rather, he told those with two coats to share one with those who had none. Likewise those with an abundance of food were to share with the hungry.
Tax collectors were told to collect no more than was appointed to them. Soldiers were to rob no one by violence or by false accusation. They were to be content with their wages.
What were people to do to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah? To be generous, just, honest, grateful and compassionate.
John the Baptist continues to speak down the centuries to every generation. The great prophet asks us to prepare the way of the Lord, who comes in the external and internal wildernesses of today, thirsting for the living water that is Christ.
May the memory of John guide us to true conversion of heart, so that we may make the necessary choices to harmonize our mentalities and lives with the Gospel.
(Fr. Rosica CSB is Chief Executive Officer of Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation, and English Language Attaché to the Holy See Press Office.)