On the Second Sunday of Advent, We Meet St. John the Baptist

SCRIPTURES & ART: Today we are given a preview of John’s message: he was ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” 1660-1670
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” 1660-1670 (photo: Public Domain)

Every year, the Church reserves the Second and Third Sundays of Advent to introduce us to the person and preaching of St. John the Baptist. The Second Sunday usually presents his figure, while the Third typically gives us an extract of his teaching.

As the late Cardinal Jean Daniélou observed, John is the patron of Advent because he is the patron saint of repentance. His method of preparation for the coming of Christ was to remove what is anti-Christ, i.e., sin. Yes, only God can forgive sin, but even God cannot do that absent the sinner’s repentance. God will not take away what man does not want to give up.

It’s particularly appropriate that St. Luke introduces us to John this year. Luke’s “Infancy Narrative” (Luke 1-2) — his account of Jesus’ birth — is actually two infancy narratives, because the Evangelist treats the conceptions and births of John the Baptist and Jesus in parallel. Both are unexpected. B0th are conceived out of the ordinary course. Both have parents (especially Jesus’ mother and John’s father) invited to have faith in their special child, and both sing God’s praises. We also learn of the children’s first encounter, already prenatally, when John “leapt in my womb for joy” (Luke 2:41, 44). And all this immediately precedes, in the Gospel text, the Gospel readings for this and next Sunday.

John does not come out of nowhere. Throughout most of Advent, he tag-teams with Isaiah, whose prophecy (40:3-5) is explicitly quoted in today’s Gospel. Both will call throughout Advent for repentance. That is, in fact, the main message of all the prophets: repentance. If we read through the Old Testament prophets, their message is only incidentally about the future. No, a prophet’s real vocation was to challenge Israel in the here and now. How is Israel living up to the calling it has received? You call yourselves “God’s Chosen People?” Do you act like God’s Chosen People?

Two main moral lines course through most of the prophets’ speeches: purity of worship and justice. Because Israel was constantly tempted to worship this golden calf or that Baal or this deity, the prophets constantly reminded Israel that, because it was God’s Chosen People, with whom he had made a special, covenantal relationship, they owed their love and service to God alone. While God sometimes seems in the Old Testament to be aloof and transcendental, that’s not quite true. When Hosea compares Israel’s infidelity to God to a wife’s unfaithfulness to her husband, it’s clear that — for Israel — this is personal. Religion is neither about an abstract knowledge of God nor a proper ritual performance of sacrifice. Those were important but, absent the relationship to him, they did not mean much.

The other main line of moral argument on the prophets’ part was justice and fairness to one’s fellow man — not cheating, not defrauding, not adultering (weights or other things), not exploiting. If you melted it down, the prophets’ lines were simple: love God, and love neighbor, so that God can heal you.

Which made John “the last and greatest of the prophets” (see Matthew 11:11) because, while his Message stood in continuity with the prophets who preceded him, the One capable of taking away the sin of the world and healing you was ready to step on to the scene.’ That is why Malachi, speaking for God, foresees John as “my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then, suddenly, the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple …” (Malachi 3:1, Reading for Thursday, Advent Week IV). Like 40 days after Christmas.

Luke makes it very clear that John does not just come out of nowhere. In addition to his citation of Isaiah, Luke also carefully grounds the history of Christ in history.

Remember that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are really two volumes of one work (see Acts 1:1), intended to convey the historical truth of the life of Jesus (Gospel) and the early Church (especially Peter and Paul) to a certain Christian convert, Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4). Luke grounds these events in history. John begins preaching “in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:1). Tiberius became Emperor in AD 14, so we are talking the year AD 29-30. “Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea” (v.1), an office he held from about AD 26/27-AD 36/37. Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, became a localized Roman client ruler (“tetrarch”) in Galilee, where he would reign until about AD 39. Another son, Philip, would rule until AD 34. (Herod’s third son, Archaelus, had already been deposed by the Romans in AD 6). Annas’ son-in-law, Caiaphas, was high priest from AD 18-36, clearly able to work with the Roman occupiers.

John, too, fits in time and space: “the whole region of the Jordan” (Luke 3:3), the river Israel crossed to take possession of the Holy Land, on her eastern borders, a point of contention even until our day (when people speak of the “West Bank” they are talking about the West Bank of the Jordan).

Today we are only given a preview of John’s message: he was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 3). Next week, we’ll get more specifics.

Today’s artwork, “St. John the Baptist in the Wilderness,” is a work from 17th-century Spanish Baroque artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, an artist known for his many religious paintings and, for a long time, considered the epitome of Spanish art. The painting today hangs in the National Gallery of Art in London.

He began his artistic career in Seville but later moved to Madrid. Spain in the 17th century was a world power (which only during his lifetime lost control of the Netherlands). In that environment, Murillo came into contact with numerous trends in the art of his day. He became a master of the Baroque, of which this painting is representative.

Per Baroque conventions, a large, strong and muscular John dominates the canvas, a paradox given that John always stressed that he must decrease and Christ must increase (John 3:30). John is associated with two of his traditional attributes: he is clothed in a rough, camel-hair garment (Matthew 3:4) and he carries a reed cross (alluding to Christ’s question why people had gone out to see John — to see “a reed shaken in the wind?” — Matthew 11:7). Atop the cross is the banner “Ecce Agnus,” referring to Jesus pointing out Christ as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). John also bears a red cloak, alluding to his future martyrdom at Herod Antipas’s hands (see Matthew 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; an allusion in Luke 3:19). The otherwise darker background (typical of Baroque painting) depicts a wilderness setting.

John’s eyes are raised to heaven, in prayer, which is why I chose this painting. Apart from pointing our eyes away from him (Luke 3:15-18), John by his practice shows us to where our eyes should be directed: to God (symbolized by the lighter space in the sky, where the clouds break, a light John’s face shares).

Advent is the time to get acquainted with this man and his message.