Who are you?
In the name of the Father…
What is the big deal with John the Baptist? Here we are at the business end of the season of Advent, diligently preparing ourselves for the coming of Christ, and yet, for the second Sunday in a row now, we find our attention directed not toward Christ, but to this other person: The Baptist. Why?
Well, the standard response, indeed the scriptural response, is that the Baptist is “preparing the way” for Christ, he is the voice in the wilderness crying out “make straight the way of the Lord”. But what does this actually mean? In what sense can we say that the Baptist “prepares the way” for the Lord? And why does the Lord need someone to prepare his way in the first place? If what we mean by this, as we often seem to assume, is that the Baptist goes ahead of the Lord to prepare the people to receive him, then it seems something of an understatement to say that he might have hoped to make a better job of it. But is that what we mean when we say that the Baptist prepares the way of the Lord?
Like the priests and Levites in today’s gospel we search among the fragments of information the gospels provide us with to try to get a handle on the enigma of the Baptist, to try to gain some sense of who this strange and charismatic figure really is and the nature of his relationship to Christ. And yet every effort to piece together a more substantial identity for the Baptist founders upon the great litany of denials we are presented with in today’s gospel. Who is the Baptist? He is not the Messiah. He is not the light. He is not Elijah. He is not the Prophet. He is not worthy. The Baptist is the great “not” man of the gospel, he is the great also-ran. And this great absence of information concerning the Baptist’s life only serves to magnify the already profound stumbling block of his death. It is difficult to exaggerate the squalidness and hopelessness of the circumstances in which the Baptist’s life comes to an end. The man the Lord calls the greatest of those born of women is beheaded by a buffoon at the behest of a dancing girl. It is an outrageous death, a death the scandal of which no amount of tidying up can diminish, and confronted with it the question returns to us all the more starkly, in what way can any of this be said to “prepare the way of the Lord”?
Well, perhaps we are looking at the question in the wrong way. It has become a commonplace of this season to reflect on the fact that in the Mystery of the Incarnation the eternal and omnipotent Word of God deigns to need our help, that by becoming not just a man but that quintessence of human vulnerability, a baby, the Word of God submits to depend upon us for his very survival. And not just for his survival but for everything that goes to the making of a human life. Time and again it has been necessary to remind ourselves that the Lord did not emerge from the womb of his mother with everything he needed to live an independent existence, he needed someone to show him the way. He needed someone to show him how eat, how to talk, how to dress. More than this, he needed someone to show him how to be a man, to be a grown up, to be an adult human being. And it is only right that we should emphasise the unique role of Our Lady and St Joseph in this. It was Our Lady and St Joseph who were most intimately responsible for the making of the man we encounter in the pages of the gospel. And for all the sentimental twaddle this idea has generated — Our Lady and St Joseph teaching the Lord to ride a bicycle and feed the ducks — it remains a truth of immense profundity and power: the eternal and omnipotent Word of God needs our help. The eternal and omniscient Word of God needs someone to show him the way.
And yet in the midst of all this good and necessary emphasis upon Our Lady and St Joseph we have all too often overlooked the fact that there is another task the Word of God needs our help to fulfil, a task that not even Our Lady and St Joseph can help him with: he needs somebody to show him how to die. For how easily we forget that dying too is not something we are born knowing how to do, quite the contrary, it is something we have to learn, against all our natural instincts for life, to accept, to say ‘yes’ to. And this is true to an infinitely greater degree of the death that the Lord is going to have to suffer. He, above all, needs someone to show him the way.
And of all the ways the Lord depended upon the help of others in his earthly life that we have tended to overlook, this is surely the most extraordinary. As we never tire of telling those who are suspicious of the reverence we pay to the Blessed Virgin Mary, we honour the Virgin Mary because there can be no limit to the honour we give to the Incarnation. It is because of the Incarnation that we honour the one whose ‘yes’ made it possible. And yet we have talked and talked and talked about the death of Christ, we have shown the greatest reverence we are capable of to the Cross, and yet somehow we have failed to acknowledge that here too the Lord was not without the need of human assistance, here too he needed someone to show him the way, to make the way straight. And the one to do this was John the Baptist. That is the meaning of the squalid scene that takes place somewhere out of sight in a dark corner of Herod’s Antipas’s house, because it is the meaning of the whole mystery of the Baptist in the scheme of salvation. What is the path the Baptist makes straight for the Lord? It is the path to the Cross.
Only in the light of the Cross are we able to see the life and death of the Baptist in their true light. Only in the light of the Cross is all that we previously took for an absence of identity in the person of the Baptist revealed as an absence of resistance to the will of God, an absence of resistance so profound that it marked out the way for the Lord’s own journey to the Cross.
And only in the light of the Cross are we able to hear today’s gospel aright, to hear the great beauty in that long litany of denials. For each one of these is like a bell sounding the depths of inner freedom in the Baptist. With each one the promise of an almost unlimited status and glory is held out to the Baptist, and each one returns to its proposer ungrasped at, unclaimed. Are you the Messiah? No. Are you Elijah? No. Are you the prophet? No.
And so, finally, it is only in the light of the Cross that we can make sense of the great hopelessness of the Baptist’s death, that we see that the greater the darknesses and hopelessness the Baptist enters into in death, the greater is the gift he offers to the Lord in his agony and passion, the clearer he marks out the Lord’s way to the Cross.
How is it that the Baptist is able to fulfil this role? By what immense grace of God was he able to accomplish all this? Well that remains a mystery, and yet we are given a clue by the gospels. Today is Gaudete Sunday, it is a Sunday of joy. Now, it may well seem to you that joy is the last thing I have been talking about this morning. But that is not what the scriptures tell us, which is that joy is the great secret of the Baptist and of the Lord’s own passion and death. In the third chapter of John’s gospel the Baptist himself tells us not that he is bowing out a defeated man, but that he welcomes his own diminishment even unto death, because his joy has been made complete. So we are told of Christ that it was for the joy set before him that the he endured the cross, scorning its shame.
It is this great and indomitable joy that conquers the world, that comes to us in a tiny child and shines forth in the empty tomb. And this, finally, is the great message of the Baptist. Amen.