JOHN THE BAPTIST announces the theme of Advent: “Reform your lives! The reign of God is at hand” (Mt 3, 2). Gregory the Great explains that John came as a “&lspuo;herald's voice [crying] in the desert,’because he shows to deserted and forlorn Judaea the approaching consolation of her Redeemer.” God became man for our consolation.
In the details of John the Baptist's appearance and manners, Hilary of Poitiers discovers symbolic significance of a different tone. “For the preaching of John no place was more suitable, no clothing more useful, no food more filled.” Camel's hair, leather belt, locusts, and wild honey: “In this clothing and this poor food,” explains still another authority, “John shows us that he sorrows for the sins of the whole human race.” Advent signals a period for sorrow for sin, an interval to take account of our conduct. But unlike the preeminent penitential season of Lent, the Church tempers Advent penance by repeatedly reminding us of the “approaching consolation” of our Redeemer. This good news, which John is the last to foretell, shapes the graces that characterize this season: the grace of image-restoration and the grace of image-perfection.
While the message of John the Baptist is clear enough, the baptism that John administered in the River Jordan raises a theological issue. St. John Chrysostom expresses it well: “For while as yet the sacrifice had not been offered, nor remission of sin sent, nor the Spirit had descended on the water, how,” he asks, “could sin be forgiven?” In other words, since only Jesus himself effectively sends the Holy Spirit, what force does John's ritual baptizing sustain? Listen carefully to the answer John Chrysostom gives: “Since the Jews never perceived their own sins, and this was the cause of all their evils, John came to bring them to a sense of their sins by calling them to repentance.” John the Baptist, the last prophet of Israel, came to convey a true sense of sin's horror, and to urge repentance: “Reform your lives! The reign of God is at hand.” There is no grace of image-restoration without the grace to recognize ourselves as sinners.
Commemorating the Advent season enjoy, we an advantage over those who, as we read in the Gospel account, came out to the Jordan River to meet John the Baptist. Christ's sacrifice now has been offered, the remission of sins actually exists in the Church, and the Holy Spirit confers on the sacraments their full authority. “God the Father of mercies through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself, and sent the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of sins.” Thus the formula of sacramental absolution.
Does the new covenant in Christ's blood mean that the message of John the Baptist no longer serves for our instruction? By no means! The Church still needs to hear his message, for the members of the Church too easily abide the same spiritual blindness that afflicted the Chosen People.
During Advent, the Church earnestly encourages us to celebrate the sacrament of Penance, which entails a true and honest perception of our sins. “In a certain sense, confession,” Pope John Paul II reminds us, “forces sin out of the secret of the heart and thus out of the area of pure individuality.” And this means that we must entrust ourselves with honesty and courage to the divine mercy that forgives. Only in this way, can we experience in our very persons the fulfillment of that mysterious truth of which St. Paul speaks when he affirms that whereas Christ became the servant of the Jews because of God's faithfulness to the patriarchs, the Gentiles glorify God because of his mercy (see Rom 15, 8-9).
The confession of sins causes many people a certain anxiety, and so not a few Christians search an easier approach to divine forgiveness. For example, some suggest direct appeal to an omnipotent God who can read the human heart without a person having to examine scrupulously his or her conscience, while others favor a generic confession of shortcomings and failures, instead of an honest and complete enumeration of actual sins. But the saints instruct us that “a few acts of confidence and love are worth more than a thousand circumlocutions.” For God provides a much better option than the chance for sinners to hide behind their own pride and excuses. In his only-begotten Son, God gives us the “consolation of a Redeemer.” However frail our priests may be, the sacrament of Order confides to them this ministry of merciful reconciliation; Christ makes the priests of his Church apt instruments for separating in the lives of the faithful the grain of virtue from the chaff of vice.
Of course, God's gracious forbearance towards the sinner never provides an excuse for spiritual sloth. Advent encourages the expectation of salvation, not obstinacy in sin. For this reason, no Christian believer ever outgrows the need for frequent confession. Yet sadly, many Catholics keep the sacrament of penance too long among their good intentions. For Religious and those who themselves exercise the ministry of reconciliation such forestalling entails unique spiritual perils.
Father Cessario is a professor of moral theology at St. John's Seminary, Brighton, Mass.