2nd Sunday of Advent – Introducing St. John the Baptist

John does not just talk the talk — he walks the walk

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “St. John the Baptist with the Scribes and Pharisees,” 1655
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “St. John the Baptist with the Scribes and Pharisees,” 1655 (photo: Public Domain)

Regardless of which Evangelist is the particular focus in the three-year Sunday cycle of readings, the Gospels of the Second and Third Sundays of Advent always focus on the person and work of St. John the Baptist, the prophet par excellence of Advent. Today’s Gospel introduces us to the man. Next Sunday’s will present us with the encounter between Jesus and John’s disciples.

The Gospel this Sunday makes clear that the message of John’s mission was repentance in preparation for the coming of God’s Kingdom. John exhorts his listeners to “repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!” Matthew, unlike Mark or Luke, never speaks of the “Kingdom of God” — devout Jews refrain from using the Divine Name and Matthew was not only a Jew himself but writing to such an audience. Instead, he used the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven.” Matthew not only records how John describes his mission, but he then follows with a particularly Matthean practice: quoting Old Testament Scripture (in this case, Isaiah 40:3) to corroborate the claim.

John does not just talk the talk; he walks the walk. His garments and diet are penitential. Camel hair is rough, locusts are bugs, and wild honey is living off the land — basic protein and sugar.

Matthew records the historical consequences. “At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him to be baptized in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.”

This was happening around A.D. 30. Judea, chafing under Roman rule, was awaiting a Messiah who would finally end the people’s governance under foreign, pagan rule. By God’s grace, John’s message resonated with them. Israel was aware — as the prophets had repeatedly underscored — that its situation, especially during the Babylonian Exile, was due to its sins. Israel needed moral reform to live according to the Covenant as Yahweh’s Chosen People. That’s why the people confess their sins as John baptizes them. He does so in the River Jordan, a symbolically significant point because it was when the Jews crossed Jordan that the Exodus came to an end and they finally entered the Holy Land as God’s Chosen People. John is making clear to them that to enter this Holy Land as God’s Chosen People requires making the choice Moses put before their ancestors generations earlier: “This day I set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that you and your descendants might live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

Among those who come up to John are “many Pharisees and Sadducees.” Their presence gives John the opportunity to stress two points: the need for genuine conversion now because his preaching of repentance is preparatory for “one coming after me who is mightier than I.”

John does not spare the Pharisees and Sadducees. He does not call for “dialogue” or “exchange of insights.” He brands them a “brood of vipers” and demands concrete proof of “your repentance.” John does not see his ministry as a curiosity shop, especially for the “establishment religious.” He demands evidence of inward conversion, not just external observance, because the latter is worthy only of “God’s coming wrath.” John is also clear that his call of repentance is only the prologue to the advent of God’s Messiah, who will baptize not with water but with the inner, transformational power of God’s Spirit. Because he comes to bring judgment — because saving the good means acknowledging the real difference between good and evil — he will separate the wheat from the chaff.

A superficial Christianity sometimes draws facile distinctions between God’s “anger” and his “love.” As theologian Margaret Turek points out, however, God’s anger and his love are not two different things. They are his love. But his love cannot acquiesce in, cannot accept evil. His love cannot tolerate what mars, disfigures or destroys the image of God within us. Toward those things he must be angry, which is nothing more than his love demanding that what is not love be burned away. Only when, despite everything, we stubbornly cling to what is not love (and even pretend it “is love”) do experience God’s love as pure wrath — not because God is misguided, but because we are.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by 17th-century Spanish Baroque painter, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), considered among the all-time masters of Spanish art. “John the Baptist with the Scribes and Pharisees” is an oil painting from ca. 1655 that now hangs in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.

The figure of John, in camel-hair clothing and bearing a cross staff, recurs in Murillo’s paintings: we saw its basic outline on this Sunday last year. In his painting, he stands on the right opposite three Pharisees and scribes, in far less penitential garb, who have come to him. Given that the figure in black with his back turned toward us is apparently speaking, we might surmise John has not yet unleashed on his interlocutors. The Jordan River and the Judean desert beyond can be seen behind John’s right leg. He stands in front of a bush, which may symbolize the fruitfulness of his mission. Tradition holds that John baptized around the Ford of Bethabara a point of transit across Jordan where some vegetation grew. Above St. John a lion carries the Latin banner: “A voice crying in the wilderness, make ready the paths of the Lord.” The Matthean angel above the Pharisees bears the banner: “None greater has arisen among those born of women,” quoting Jesus’s subsequent description of the Baptist (Matthew 11:11).

Bold color and strong physiques are characteristic of Baroque art: against the paler blue of the sky and the river, the Pharisees’ strong colors in clothing — black and gold — and even John’s flash of red (which may also allude to his coming martyrdom) create powerful contrasts. John’s physique is not as robust as the Pharisees’ but, then again, they were not likely accustomed to a locust diet. John, nevertheless, is a well-developed, muscular figure, even if less so than the well-fed brood visiting him.

The painting was originally painted for a Seville monastery. It may have been influenced by a similar work by Francisco Herrera the Elder of John preaching to the crowds at large.

Those who repented came to John to “acknowledge their sins” in preparation for the coming Messiah. Isn’t Advent a good time to prepare for the Lord’s coming by a good Confession?