2nd Sunday of Advent.
Today on this second Sunday of Advent we come across the figure of John the Baptist. In Mark’s Gospel he appears as a rather wild figure: we are told that he was clothed in camel’s hair, and that he fed on locusts and wild honey. If such a man had to appear in our church today he would probably be dismissed as a crank.
Yet John the Baptist has been revered over the centuries as a great prophet. Let us ponder on the following words:
We give you good news of a boy, whose name is John: We have not made before anyone his equal. O John, take hold of the Book with strength.
Where do these words come from? Some Christian text? No! They come from the Qu’ran. John the Baptist is given a special place by Islam as a HOLY prophet. And John the Baptist is patron saint of countries throughout the world, ranging from Muslim Jordan to French Canada.
So why is John the Baptist such a revered figure in faith circles? I suggest that the reason can be summed up in the words moral courage. This is the ability to hold to what is right in the face of popular opposition or discouragement. The gift of moral courage (fortitude) allows people the firmness of mind that is required both in doing good and in enduring evil.
John displayed moral courage in his life by proclaiming (as Mark’s Gospel tells us) a baptism of repentance for the whole people. This word repentance must be one of the most politically incorrect words in the modern world, and conjures up images of medieval sackcloth and ashes. But when we dig deeper, we see the creative potential of repentance. The Greek word μετανοια is derived from the word for washing and conveys the sense of renewal.
And one of the most remarkable aspects of John’s courage was that, while he was unflinchingly proud of his God and his beliefs, he was entirely free from personal vanity. He saw himself as preparing the way for Jesus and said simply: “I am not worthy to untie the thong of the sandals on Jesus’ feet”.
And I reflect on whether I show John’s quality of moral courage (steadfast, humble renewal) in my life. Do I have bottom lines, non-negotiable principles to which I remain true? When moral issues surface, do I respond clearly and firmly, without thought for myself, as John would?
I give an example. My faith tells me: “You shall not kill”. And therefore my faith demands of me that I oppose the taking of life in all its forms. This commitment to life matters. When my daughter went for a scan when her baby was only a few weeks old in her womb, there was a pulse of life that had the right to full existence. When the prisoner stood in the dock for sentencing before me, he was still a child of God with the right to be treated with dignity. And the last year of my mother’s life, for all its frailty, still had value as her example taught us unselfishness and thinking of others.
So when I am challenged about abortion, capital punishment or euthanasia, do I firmly and clearly say: “All human beings have the right to life”. Or do I allow my personal vanity or desire to please to find excuses or simply remain silent? Martin Luther King, whose civil rights cause in the 1960s suffered from the silence of the good people, warned:
History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
The model of the morally courageous leader whose focus is on what is right and not the easy way continues to command respect. Nearer our own time I think of Mahatma Gandhi, who was dismissed as a revolutionary in a loincloth but who left an enduring impression on humanity. The same quality that has made John the Baptist so important to Christianity, Islam and other faiths, runs through the following advice that Gandhi left for us:
Let the first act of every morning be to make the following resolve for the day:
- I shall not fear anyone on Earth.
- I shall fear only God.
- I shall not bear ill will toward anyone.
- I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.
- I shall conquer untruth by truth.
- And in resisting untruth, I shall put up with all suffering.