You may have heard the message “A dog is for life, not just for
Christmas”. Well, we can say the opposite with the assembly of candles
behind me: “An Advent wreath is for Advent and Christmas, not for life”.
Once the Christmas season finishes, the wreath is put away and the rest of
the liturgical calendar unfolds.
So in some ways, the figure of St John the Baptist today is a bit like an
Advent wreath. He is there just to point the people to Christ and call them
to repentance, not to be a permanent figure. If we read the later parts of St
John’s Gospel, we see that John’s disciples, just like the people in general,
leave him behind to follow Christ. In John chapter three, he is asked what
he thinks about it. John is not one for drawing attention to himself, and he
recognises his place in God’s plan. He says:
“A man can lay claim
only to what is given him from heaven …
He must grow greater,
I must grow smaller” (3:27. 30).
The temptation for a priest can be to foster a sort of personality cult,
distracting people away from the Lord. And in other settings, it’s not
unknown for people to use their position, their public image and so on to
build themselves up, sometimes at the cost of others.
So John is a real example of humility for us, and of faithfulness to his
vocation. You could say that it wouldn’t have been any good for him to
have resisted anyway – how can he compete with the incarnate Son of
God? Today we celebrate Gaudete Sunday, with “gaudete” meaning
rejoice. It brought joy to John’s heart to know that people were following
the Lord in such numbers – it was his life’s work to make that happen, and
he didn’t want to cast a shadow over it.
In the first reading, it opens with, “The spirit of the Lord has been given to
me for the Lord has anointed me”. Certainly that applies to John the
Baptist. But it applies to us, too. We have been anointed with the Holy
Spirit in both our baptism and our confirmation, and our task is to
powerfully witness to the Lord in our own setting, whether in the family, at
school, in the workplace or when mixing with friends. If you come across
something good, you want to tell others about it: it might be a film you
saw, a new chocolate biscuit you tried, or maybe a place you visited. With
our faith, it can be the same as well. Going to Mass week by week might
seem quite the same, unless there was something unusual that happened, or
some discovery you made, or an experience of God’s presence that you
felt. But we can also delve into new areas by going on retreat, or a new
book or video on some aspect of the faith that interests us. Our faith can
be ever new, and our relationship with the Lord can grow.
Of course, there can be things that don’t work, or maybe you’re not ready
for. When I was in my late teens, someone invited me along to a
charismatic prayer group, and people prayed in tongues. And they were
switching between English and tongues, not just mid-sentence, but mid
word. Some might have thought, wow, this is just like the early Church,
when the Holy Spirit came down on the Apostles at Pentecost. Instead I
just felt uncomfortable, and perhaps a bit scared, and never went again.
But now I have no problem with it. God’s ways are not always our ways,
and we have to get used to that.
So, what kind of an end did John the Baptist get? After all his witnessing,
what happened? Well, you might answer that he got locked up by the
king, and then had his head chopped off. But you’re wrong. Or at least
only partially right. What kind of an end did he get? He was welcomed to
heaven in glory, of course. Our Lord Himself said, “I tell you solemnly, of
all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never
been seen” (Matt 11:11). His martyrdom was preparation for entry into
eternal life, a bit like St John Fisher and St Thomas More, who were also
beheaded. Or listen to these words from the Catholic martyr, Blessed John
Sugar, just before his execution: “although I shall have a sharp dinner, yet
I trust in Jesus Christ that I shall have a most sweet supper”.
Things change throughout our life. Sometimes we might be more on
display, like the Advent wreath, or John the Baptist, but there comes the
time to give way when the Lord wants to do something new. And, like
John, sometimes great tragedy in our life only paves the way to future
glory – glory that will only be revealed the other side of the grave.