Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24; John 1.6-8,19-28
CHRISTIANS are called to be saints and not heroes. As Stanley Hauerwas observes, today’s culture has a particular need of heroic figures. It is repeatedly let down by those it raises to this status. After each disappointment it finds another hero in whom to invest its hope.
Heroes are always the central figure in the story of their deeds. The saint, on the other hand, “is just a small character in a story that is always fundamentally about God” (Samuel Wells in Rupert Shortt’s God’s Advocates, DLT, 2005).
John the Baptist illuminates this distinction. At first glance, his actions may seem heroic: he abandons the comforts and securities of his community to live on locusts and honey in the desert. John’s proclamation of a baptism of repentance threatens the monopoly of power held by the cultic priests; hence their visit to him in today’s reading (John 1.19). He is fearless in calling to account the Empire’s soldiers and tax collectors. His willingness to speak truth to King Herod will ultimately cost him his life.
His story, however, is fundamentally about someone else. In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist makes three denials before saying anything positive about his identity. Even then, he defines his own part in relation to another, declaring: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1.23).
Reflecting on this passage, Jean Vanier exclaims: “What a beautiful man! What transparency! What humility! If only we could all be like that, not pointing to ourselves and to our own spiritual power, but pointing to Jesus, who draws us to a new and deeper love!” (Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, Paulist Press, 2015).
John the Baptist’s words and deeds form a seamless unity. His words have credibility because they are echoed in his life.
The remark attributed to St Francis — “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words” — has value in recalling us to those aspects of witness which require us to act, as well as speak. But it is wrong to interpret it as meaning that it is possible to preach by deeds alone. That idea involves a false humility. It suggests that our deeds might be so Christlike as to be an adequate testimony to his saving work.
As Vanier observes, the humility of John the Baptist lies in his willingness to declare to his hearers that it is Christ whom they need to encounter face to face. John knows that is in Christ’s deeds, not his own, that the hope of the world is to be found. The Baptist’s vocation is to prepare the way for Christ, from whom “we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1.16).
BY TRADITION, this is Gaudete Sunday, when the Church finds respite from the austerity of Advent observance. Gaudete means “rejoice”, and this was the first word of the day’s liturgy. That is one reason why the Old Testament lesson, psalm, and epistle all contain the word “rejoice”. Traditionally, rose-coloured vestments are used, as on Refreshment Sunday in Lent. In churches that use an Advent wreath, this is the Sunday when the pink candle (if it has one) is lit.
On the surface, it is incongruous to remember the austere figure of John the Baptist on Gaudete Sunday. There is, however, a deeper logic at work. In his witness to Christ, John the Baptist reminds us that salvation is not accomplished by heroic disciples: it is a gift of grace. “The Lord has indeed done great things for us, and therefore we rejoiced” (Psalm 126.4).
To have a Sunday of rejoicing in the midst of the Advent fast is not simply a concession to human weakness. It serves as a corrective to the tendency to spiritual pride, reminding those who fast that the whole of the Christian life is a matter of grace. In the reading from Isaiah, the “robe of righteousness” is not an achievement of the writer, or his people, but an item with which God graciously clothes them (Isaiah 61.10).
The goal of fasting is not to win divine approval, but to open our lives more fully to God’s grace. St Augustine offers us a vivid image of the purpose of all self-denial: “Supposing that God wishes to fill you with honey — if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey? What the vessel was carrying must be poured out; the vessel itself must be cleansed” (Tractates on the First Letter of John). If we are to keep our eyes on the goal of all Christian penance, we must spend time rejoicing in God’s gift of grace.
Canon Angus Ritchie is director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and Priest-in-Charge of St George-in-the-East, London.