The Forerunner

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, Year A.

If you worked at a PR firm, and were in charge of picking a spokesperson for the Advent season, the last person you’d probably pick is John the Baptist. You might pick St. Nick. You might pick a shepherd. You might pick an angel or a wise man. But you would not pick John the Baptist. “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” He was a strange man, both in appearance and in speech. If you are looking for tidings of comfort and joy, John is not your man. He called sinners to repentance. He threatened the unrepentant with hellfire. He referred to the religious elite as “a brood of vipers.” He was not, by any modern standard, politically correct or even nice. And yet, for the next two weeks, John the Baptist will be our spokesperson for the Advent season. He will be our voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

The temptation during the Advent season is to celebrate Christmas before it actually arrives. Advent is a time of waiting, but we don’t like to wait. We want to have what we want right away. And what we want is the joy and excitement of Christmas. We’d rather skip John the Baptist and go straight to the shepherds, angels, and wise men. We want the gift without having to prepare to receive it. We want the satisfaction of our desires without the painful longing for their fulfillment. But that was not the experience of the Jewish people in the Old Testament, and that is not meant to be our experience during the Advent season. What Isaiah foretold in our first reading took eight-hundred years to come true, eight-hundred years of waiting for the Messiah. We sing, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” for four weeks, not four centuries or even eight centuries. But we do so in order to enter into this experience of waiting.

But the question remains, what to do about this strange figure of John the Baptist? How do we relate to a man whose mannerisms and message are so foreign to our own?

The answer, I think, is to be found in those emotions which are no less common during this season than joy and excitement. This time of year, perhaps more than any other time, has the ability to provoke a whole range of human emotions. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, there is joy and excitement at the coming festivities. But for those who find themselves reminiscing about the Christmases of the past more than those of the present or future, there are also the emotions of sadness and nostalgia. This is especially true for those who have recently lost a loved one and will be celebrating Christmas for the first time without a spouse, parent, or child. There are also those who long for the Christmases of their youth, when the magic and mystery of the season still captured their imagination, and when they did not have to contend with growing age or declining health. It is by tapping into these emotions, which affect many of us to some degree, that we can begin to understand the role of John the Baptist.

John’s role was to be the forerunner of the Messiah. He was not the Messiah himself, just the one who prepared the way for Him. And that is often the role which our earthly loves have to play as well. Our earthly loves, whether they are for someone we have lost, or for a time in life that has passed us by, play the role of forerunner. Our earthly loves are not the final and perfect love for which we were made, but they help prepare our hearts to receive that final and perfect love. Our earthly loves are not the Messiah, but they can prepare the way for Him. For it is by loving well here on earth they we are prepared to love well in heaven.

John the Baptist pointed to the Messiah; he was a sign point aimed in Jesus’ direction. And that is what our earthly loves are meant to do as well. Nothing on this earth—no person, place, thing, or period of time—can satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts. And it is precisely the sadness and nostalgia we feel when we discover this, that point to the fact that we were made for more than this world has to offer. These feelings, which are perhaps just as common during this season as joy and excitement, are like John the Baptist. They are discomforting. But they point, just as unmistakably as John did, to the Messiah whom we await and long for. The challenge is not to ignore these feelings. The challenge is not to skip over these “John the Baptists” in our hearts and just focus on the shepherds, angels, and wise men.

So, what is that “John the Baptist” in your own heart? What is that sadness or nostalgia you feel because an earthly love hasn’t satisfied the deepest longings of your heart? Perhaps it’s a loved one you lost recently. Perhaps it’s a relative you are estranged from. Perhaps it’s a golden age of your life that is now lost to the past. Whatever sadness or nostalgia you feel during this season, don’t be afraid of it. You may not want to feel it. You may want to run from it or skip over it. But perhaps it’s the very thing which God is trying to use to prepare your heart to receive Him at Christmas. Don’t ignore it. Pay attention to it. Let it be a signpost on your Advent journey; let it be a forerunner on your way to Bethlehem. Amen.