JOHN the Baptist is still refusing to give in to the logic of his own success. Do you claim this grand title? “No.” What about that one? “No.” When asked who he is, he instead answers with what he is — the voice of one who cries in the wilderness. We can’t ask him what he meant, so we have to deduce from the Gospel how he came to see himself as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy (Isaiah 40.3). All four Gospels witness to John as claiming this identity for himself; their witness confirms John’s claim. John’s baptism uses water: the sign of the inward reality of the cleansed sinner. But John knows that the baptism of Jesus will be a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3.16).
We can see what water is: we know its properties, its feel, the evidence of its presence. With the Holy Spirit, it’s not so clear. Yet our baptism was a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Where is the evidence for both of these elements? It’s easy to get stuck in guilt (Christians are so good at guilt!). The glow of the Spirit and fire is lacking in us — at least, other people don’t seem to notice them, even when we ourselves feel them at work. Here we risk confusing medium and message. The media by which we grow in faith are the Bible, the sacraments, and the Church. The message is that lived experience of the gospel when it touched us; that first vision of Jesus our brother, the friend of sinners who, as the Te Deum puts it, overcame the sting of death and “opened the gate of heaven to all believers”.
The gathering darkness of the dying year affects us all, whether or not we realise it. Advent is an opportunity to look into this paradox of light and dark. What must we do when our Christian faith feels like another job to be done, another burden to be shouldered? The challenge is clear from the NT reading: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
Paul is not trying to add to our burdens, or increase our guilt. His lived example as a man of faith proves that the yoke of faith should be easy, and the burden light (Matthew 11.30). If it is not so for us, we need to rethink. We may not have any outrageous or exciting sins to repent of; but faith carries with it always the need to be re-formed. The warning to the church at Ephesus is precious here: “You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Revelation 2.4-5).
Remembering our first love means rediscovering the person we were when faith was new, and love was easy and natural. Just as with other love affairs, when they settle into habit and routine, we may not be able to recover that freshness in its original form — but we can remember it. We can remember why we started the journey of faith. The readings for today are an icon of this remembering and renewing. Isaiah had proclaimed, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news.” Jesus picks up this declaration (Luke 4.18) — first spoken half a millennium before (Isaiah 61 dates to just after the return from exile) — and takes it to himself as something new.
Hidden away in Isaiah’s prophecy is a way of thinking about salvation which will be renewed, centuries later, in the white robes of Christian baptism. It is striking that the prophet speaks in clothing metaphors: “the mantle of praise . . . the garments of salvation . . . the robe of righteousness”. We may think of clothing as something that hides our true selves, or as something that expresses who we are and what we believe. But the truth is that uniforms — clerical collars, barristers’ wigs, designer labels, football shirts, headscarves, and the like — do both things at once.
As for faith, it is something that we take on, initially external to us; but, if worn well, it becomes also an expression of who we really are underneath (Ephesians 6.13-17).