Saint John the Baptist’s birth was, much like Christ’s, shrouded in mystery and accompanied by miracles. But I cannot help noting that he was so very unlike I would have imagined had I lived when he lived, and had I grown up from infancy hearing the prophecies about this forerunner, this messenger, this “furious Precursor,” as Merton* calls him.
Malachi’s prophecy is chilling—in my mind’s eye I see a man of bold stature and noble bearing, proclaiming Christ in the streets of the great cities with a voice like a trumpet and a fire in his eyes that could burn the great palaces and temples to the ground. He preached not a Christ that would judge the heathen, as the Israelites were hoping, but a Christ who would part the wheat from the chaff in His own people, acting “as a refiner’s fire,” as Malachi says in today’s reading. John the Baptist sounds like someone I couldn’t have ignored.
But what do we find John the Baptist to have actually been? A desert-dweller, living on whatever meager sustenance God permitted the barren land around him to supply—a wild-eyed man of the wilderness, offering his people eternal life in the waters of the Jordan like a lunatic. “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he intoned like a street preacher. Did the crowds gather and scoff at this gaunt, bearded firebrand?
He wielded the mercy of God like a holy sword, cutting open the hearts of his listeners, exposing their hypocrisy and rendering it powerless against the all-consuming Love of the One for whom he was such an impassioned Forerunner.
A furious Precursor, indeed—but nothing like I would have imagined.
I find myself wondering here and now what clandestine holy men and women I walk hurriedly past every day—businessmen, homeless families, and street preachers, all full of prophetic potential, and nothing like I would imagine.
I preach all the time about how every person is an Image-bearer, stamped with the imprint of a divine and creative God. But, honestly, had I been alive when John the Baptist was around, I probably would have tossed a few spare coins in his hat to get out of a conversation with him on the street. My heart is just ugly like that. I usually don’t see people for who they really are at a glance, for I am only human, but all too often I’m not willing to take a minute and actually look or listen.
It was this type of hypocrisy to which John the Baptist so perfectly laid waste with his fiery preaching, his water baptisms, and his very real devotion to Christ. We who preach Christ with our lips and yet do not see Him in every man—we who worship God with our mouths and do not enthrone Him in our hearts—we who preach God’s justice and yet refuse to spend our lives working to win it for the poor—we must hear the voice of that furious Precursor and repent.
This Advent I am praying for the grace to see Christ in every man and woman and child with the eyes of faith.
*Find the Thomas Merton poem here.
Audrey Assad is a wife, mother, and musician. You can find out more about her here.