Yes, he certainly knew how to get people to sit up and take notice. We are told in the Gospel passage from Sunday (Matthew 3:1-12) that John the Baptist, when he saw Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him for baptism, cried out: “You brood of vipers!” That must have caught their attention. Not exactly the approach Dale Carnegie had in mind when he wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People.
The Baptizer was no less direct with anyone else that came to him at the Jordan river. His one command not only echoed across the wilderness but also reverberated in the minds and hearts of all who received it: “Repent!” His was a clear and direct call to everyone to wake up to the sin in their lives, seek forgiveness from God and begin (or begin again) to live in accord with the commands of the Almighty.
John knew that, because of the call he had received from God, there could be no room in his message for ambiguity. His vocation was to be the Forerunner, that is, the one set apart by God to prepare the way in people’s hearts for the coming of the Messiah. Rather serious, that. Therefore, only the direct approach would do.
I daresay that, in our day, we are even more in need of this clarion call than were the people who gathered in the Jordanian wilderness of old. As we hear the ancient call of St. John the Baptist to repent, to undergo a radical re-orientation of our lives, we realize it needs to break through many barriers of resistance and misunderstanding placed before it by contemporary ways of thinking and behaving.
Consider: Sacred Scripture summons us to obedience to the will of God. In our culture of presumed radical autonomy, the call to surrender my desires to the divine commands is very hard to accept. The Gospels tell us that the Christian is one who places others before self, who empties oneself for the sake of God and of others, just as Jesus emptied himself, even to the point of death on the Cross. But if we fall in with our culture of self-absorption, the call to self-gift can seem impossible to answer. Throughout the Bible, we hear the call of God to turn away from sin and embrace virtue. Yet, much of the messaging we receive in the various forms of media presents as virtue what is in reality a vice, so putting the Word of God into practice will often require a serious re-orientation of thought.
Even when the cry of John the Baptist hits us between the eyes, as often it must, even when its truth sinks in, repentance remains very difficult to undergo. Nevertheless, we have reason for hope – much hope. The Sunday of Advent on which this arresting Gospel passage was proclaimed was December the 8th, Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. (Its liturgical celebration is transferred this year to December 9th.) The coincidence of the two moments of the liturgical calendar carries within it an invitation to turn to the Blessed Mother to help us in our weakness. Do we not, in fact, ask her precisely to pray “for us sinners” each time we offer the Hail Mary?
John the Baptist tells us, without ambiguity, that we must turn our lives around if we are to welcome the Saviour. The Church teaches, with equal clarity, that Mary, conceived without sin, will help us by her prayers to repent and embrace anew the call to holiness.
Immaculate Mary, pray for us!