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Third Sunday of Advent
December 12, 2004

"A" Readings: Isa. 35:1-6, 10 • James 5:7-10 • Matt. 11:2-11

John the Baptist as Our Advent Guide

By Rev. Jeffrey Lawrence

Today, we meet St. John the Baptist in his prison cell. The ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, writes that the Baptist was locked up in a place called Machaerus, King Herod’s fortress on the dreary and isolated hills east of the Dead Sea.

Once again, John’s mouth had gotten him into trouble. 

Not long ago, we met St. John while he was baptizing at the River Jordan. When the Pharisees and Sadducees came to present themselves for baptism, he railed at them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Matt. 3:7).

Ouch. Those words must have stung – and he certainly didn’t win any brownie points with the Jewish leaders.

Then, more recently, John spoke out of turn once again. Herod Antipas was the local ruler and was married to an Arab princess. But he became infatuated with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, Philip. Herod and Herodias eloped, even though they were both married. St. John the Baptist condemned this severely. He told Herod to his face, "It is not lawful for you to have her" (Matt. 14:4). 

Herod wasn’t pleased. He had John thrown into jail – and eventually, beheaded.

Why couldn’t John just be nice? Would it kill him to be more polite?

Look at us. Christmas is just ten days away, and look how much we smile at people and try to make them happy. Maybe the kids will be visiting from across the country, and even though daughter is coming home with her boyfriend and they’ve been living together for a long time, we won’t say anything because we don’t want to have a scene at the holidays. It’s better to be nice.

And Uncle Bill will probably come by for a drink, if he’s sober enough to drive and Aunt Alice doesn’t have any obvious bruises on her face, and he’ll start in on the blacks, the Jews, the Arabs, and many otholks who are not as good as he is… but we’ll bite our lips, because we want to have peace.

And don’t forget going to Mass at Father Joe’s parish where he comes down the aisle in a Santa suit and greets the people with a very trinitarian "Ho-Ho-Ho" … and it all goes downhill from there. Oh my, oh dear, we must keep quiet. He’s a priest! 

Why is it that St. John the Baptist would speak up while we prefer to hold our tongue?

For one thing, St. John undeniably was holy. That’s why Jesus praises him today: "Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist" (Matt. 11:11). 

What qualities did Our Lord admire in him? Certainly his humility. Do you remember when people kept asking him if he was the Messiah? He wasn’t flattered by these remarks. Thoughts of power and prestige didn’t fill his head. Instead, this very humble man said, "After me, One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals" (Mark 1:7). Have you ever made a comment like that about someone else? 

The Baptist also lived a very disciplined life. He didn’t let himself be swayed by earthly values or material things. A king, a Pharisee, a soldier… why, they’re just flesh-and-blood men as he is, subject to the same God and held to the same standards and commandments. As Jesus tells us, St. John wasn’t luxuriously dressed and he didn’t give a hoot about fancy food. He chose to have a single focus: Almighty God.

And because of this holiness, this humility and this radical self-discipline, John was absolutely fearless. That’s why he had the courage to speak up. You see, he wasn’t concerned with himself. He didn’t condemn anyone who insulted him or stepped on his toes or hurt him or locked him up. He bore those things silently. But when it came to the things of God – faith, true contrition, purity, holiness, justice, and so on – why, then there was no stopping him. He was a soldier of God and he would fight to the death for his Divine King. 

When we let a sin go by without a peep, we do just the opposite. That’s not a victory for peace; it’s a victory for the devil. True peace – the kind of peace that Christ wants us to have – is always based on truth and holiness.

The greatest Christmas gift we could give ourselves this year – and instill in our families – is faith and courage like St. John the Baptist’s. Pray hard for these.

Way back in the fourth century, the great saint John Chrysostom –his name means "golden mouthed," and he got that nickname because he was such am amazing preacher and fearless Christian – was being bullied by the Roman emperor and was threatened with banishment. St. John answered him, "You can’t banish me, because the whole world is my Father’s house." 

Then the emperor threatened him with death. The saint replied, "You can’t kill me, because my life is hidden with Christ in God."

Then the emperor threatened to take away all his money. St. John said, "My treasure is in heaven and my heart is there, too."

The last threat the emperor made was to deprive Chrysostom of all his friends. The saint said, "You can’t do that either, because I have a Friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you. There is nothing you can do to hurt me."

All the power of Rome was powerless before such Christian courage.

Indeed, all the power of this world is powerless before the Christian courage that Jesus holds up to us today.

During the next week and a half, as we near Our Saviour’s coming at Christmas, reflect on St. John the Baptist’s greatness before God and beg the Lord to share in his humility and fearless holiness. Then the true peace of Christmas will be with you always.

God bless you!

Suggested reading: Catechism of the Catholic Church, 736, 1832, 717, 718.

Reverend Jeffrey Lawrence is a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Ill. serving at St. Stephen’s Parish in Streator, Ill. A convert from Judaism, Fr. Lawrence practiced law, was creative director and a principal in an advertising agency, and was a consumer magazine publisher before his ordination to the priesthood as a "late vocation."

This homily originally appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, America's leading pastoral magazine


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