The Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent is a kind of miracle story in this respect: “all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out” to John the Baptist. Really? All the inhabitants? What could possibly rally unanimous response to John’s preaching? The answer: universal longing.
“John did not ask the sinner not to be a sinner,” remarks Cardinal Jean Daniélou (d 1974). Rather, he asked sinners to want to be freed from sin. He was sent to destroy their indifference and delusions toward sin.
The Baptist addressed himself to the pretences to which people cling, and he denounced their illusions by getting them to confront the inmost depths of their own hearts. His mission moved his hearers to face the ravaging personal effects of sin. For sin fragments and conflicts us. It addicts us to our emotions and feelings.
It turns us doubtful, fearful, defensive and inward. It cripples our capacity to practise virtue. It makes us domineering and ruthless. It wearies us, wears us down. It deprives us of peace. It accustoms us to despair. Who wants to live with that? John’s solicitous witness beckoned: wouldn’t you like Something More … the thing your heart was made for?
In this, John the Baptist was irresistible. Even with his weird clothes and bizarre diet, John the Baptist was not so much eccentric as exceptional. Before all else, John the Baptist was an attraction that erupted in the lives of the “people of the whole Judean countryside”, making them aware of the presence of, as he says, “one mightier, coming after me”. The word “Advent” itself means the beginning of a presence.
And this is the goal of the repentance he preached. For authentic repentance is ordered not to a law or a code of behaviour but to a person. Repentance is a change in what we set our heart on. We want to conduct ourselves “in holiness and devotion … to be found without spot or blemish” when we are in love. John’s preaching was a plea for all to come and meet the Presence who had transformed and magnetised him. John spurs in us the desire to live a different humanity, like his own – one that proclaims to the world, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord God.” He is alive in me!
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