Advent is my favorite season of the church year, for reasons other than the impending birth of the Christ child. For me, it’s all about color—the royal blues and purples, the fatigued yet warm morning light that dispels the winter darkness—and also about the great Baptizer and Testifier, John.
John the Baptist is the man! Rough and true, urgent and unsparing. I can’t wait to witness him at work, excoriating and exhorting, driving all those broods of vipers to repentance. John himself can’t wait to get them into the River Jordan, to wash their sins away with his calloused hands. He lives off the grid and sews his own clothes. He does not apologize or compromise. It’s easy to imagine Jesus speaking in a tone of alarm as much as admiration when he exclaims, “Truly I tell you, among those born of a woman no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11: 11a).
A few years ago, I was in the Philippines on a mission trip to help with the recovery efforts of Typhoon Yolanda. One day we were in Manila and stumbled into a store selling religious “treasures.” I happened to peek behind a curtain and noticed what looked like the good stuff, reserved for known customers looking for more than a Virgin Mary bobble-head. I spied what appeared to be a large wooden Santos of John the Baptist covered in dust. I about died. Not surprisingly, the shop owner didn’t want to let him go. My Pilipino friend eventually struck a bargain for me. Later, after the Baptist proved too big for my luggage, she slipped a security guard twenty American dollars to get him through customs. The things we do for love.
And it is about love! When it comes to John and his second cousin, Jesus, love reigns. John leapt for joy in his mother’s womb upon hearing Mother Mary’s greeting to Elizabeth. Leapt for joy! In the womb! He was the first to recognize that God was about to be born on this planet. Always, always, John pointed to the Truth—to the great Love—never in his own direction: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world” (John 1: 6-7, 9).
Jesus insisted that John baptize him in the Jordan and afterward, he was deeply grieved upon hearing of John’s beheading by Herod. Theirs was a relationship of deep love and respect. Jesus’ ministry would not have been validated if it weren’t for his unconventional expert witness.
John convicts us all. Before we can feast on the gratuitous gift of the incarnation—the towering miracle of God’s visit to this planet on which we live—we have to get our acts together and clean away the residue of sin that has caked the crevices of our hearts and minds since Easter. We cannot be ready for the Second Advent of Christ, the second irruption of eternity into time, if we are not alert, vigilant and absolved. This season compels us to trust the deeper meaning of God’s judgment and compassion. It is only then that we are free to allow the light and love of Christ to be reborn in us come Christmas morning.