Saint John the Baptist: A Voice in the Desert
Sunday December 16, 2001 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Third Week in Advent
Reading I (Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10) Reading II (St. James 5:7-10)
Gospel (St. Matthew 11:2-11)
When John the Baptist sent his disciples to Jesus to ask Him the simple question "Are you the One?" Jesus did not answer with a simple yes or no answer; but rather, He spoke in a way that John the Baptist would understand. He told the Baptist’s disciples, "Go and tell John what you hear and what you see: the blind see, the mute speak, the lame walk, the deaf hear…" and so on. Then He says, "And blessed are those who find in Me nothing offensive." And He turns to the crowd, as the Baptist’s disciples go back to tell John the message that the Baptist would certainly have understood, and He asks the crowd a question about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see?"
This question is critically important because it is one that each one of us needs to be able to answer now, too. In this time of preparation, first of all, we would have to ask ourselves, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, would we have gone out into the desert to see John the Baptist, and why? What is it that you would have gone to see? Knowing what we know - 2,000 years later - the question still has to ring in each one of our hearts. Knowing the message of John the Baptist and knowing the person of John the Baptist, each one of us needs to answer the question of Jesus: "What did you go out to see?"
When you decided to follow this life that Our Lord has laid out for us, what was it that you decided? Did you decide that the Christian life would be an easy, cushy, comfortable way? Did you decide that the Christian life would be the socially acceptable thing to do – that you might be able to impress people and get ahead as long as you are going to try to claim that you are living life in this manner? Or, when you heard the words of John the Baptist, did you desire to hear a prophet? Did you desire to hear the Word of God? What are we going out into the desert to hear? Who are we listening to? "What are you looking for?" is the question that Our Lord is asking.
He went on to explain to the people who John the Baptist is. "He is the one," Jesus says, "that God sent into the world to prepare the way." The people had just heard Jesus tell the disciples of the Baptist that, in essence, He is indeed the Messiah. And now, He looks at the people and says, "You went out to see John the Baptist. John the Baptist is the one God sent into the world to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, of which you have just heard Me say, ‘I am He’." That is, in essence, what He said to the people.
Now we, as 21st century Catholics, need to ask ourselves, as members of this Catholic Church, what is it that we want to hear? What is it that we are seeking? Do we want the Truth? Are we willing to live a radical Catholic life? Are we willing to listen to the voice of John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord? Or are we just willing and desiring to keep our faith as a one-hour a week thing, something that does not really affect our life a whole lot, like the people who went out into the desert, the scribes and the Pharisees? John the Baptist chastised them and called them to demonstrate some sign of their repentance. If we want to be able to call ourselves followers of Jesus, if we truly want to call ourselves Catholic people, then we need to embrace the life. We are not going out to look at a reed swaying in the wind. We are not going out looking for somebody who is dressed in fine clothes. It is the call of One who is rejected. It is the call of One who is despised. It is the call of a Crucified Man who, from the Cross, draws each one of us to Himself. Is that the life we are willing to embrace?
Saint James, in his reading, told us that we need to make our hearts strong because the day of the Lord is at hand. Are we ready for the day of the Lord? Are we willing to be seeking Him with all our heart? Not only seeking Him objectively: waiting for the Second Coming, but seeking Him subjectively – in prayer, in the depths of our hearts – looking for the Lord as He comes to each one of us and calls to us and says, "Who is it that you are looking for?" What did you seek when you took up this Catholic life?
You see, if we really want to hear the prophetic voice, then we need to be willing to change our lives. How often we come to Mass and we hear the readings from Scripture, and they mean little or nothing to us; they make little in-road within because we really do not want to hear it. We walk away saying, "That sounded good. Those are impressive words." And by the time we get to the bottom of the front steps we have totally forgotten all of it because we have more important things to do. We have other things that we want to focus on and we forget about the Lord. Do we really want to hear the voice of the prophet crying out in the desert? That desert is the human heart. And the prophet is calling in the depths of each one of our hearts, calling each one of us to repentance, calling each one of us to turn to the Lord and seek Him with all our heart, to make the heart firm.
If we are willing to do this, then the prophet Isaiah tells us the desert is going to bloom, it is going to rejoice. That is what the Church lays before us today. She calls this Gaudete Sunday which means "rejoice". That is why, today, we take off the purple and we put on rose: the color that is halfway between the purple of Advent and the white of Christmas - the penitence of Advent and the joy of Christmas; it is to be able to say that the time is at hand. The time of penance is more than halfway through; there is cause for rejoicing here. Just a little more time. "Be patient," as Saint James says, and continue to look forward.
So the prophet Isaiah calls us to make strong those limbs that are feeble, to firm up the knees, to be strong and look for the Lord. And he tells us that when we strengthen ourselves in that way we will be able to look for the Lord, who is our recompense, who is our vindication. Once again, he tells us that the day of the Lord is at hand. "The day of the Lord" in Scripture means any time, any day that the Lord is going to do something extraordinary. It can be very good, or it can seem to us very bad. It can be something which is objective. For instance, when you look at the Old Testament you could say that the day the Lord freed Jerusalem from Sennacherib, who was surrounding the city, was a day of the Lord. Suddenly, the Lord sent a plague through the Assyrian army and they were freed. That was a day of the Lord. But then, so too, was it a day of the Lord when God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed. It is a day of the Lord when Jesus Christ is born into the world. And it is a day of the Lord when Jesus Christ is crucified. It is a day of the Lord when you listen to the voice crying out in your heart and you change your life in accordance with that voice. And it will be a day of the Lord when we stand before our Judge. As Saint James tells us in the second reading: "The Judge is standing at the door."
It is entirely our choice. Do we want to listen to the voice that is crying out in the desert? Or do we want to face the Judge who is standing at the door knocking? We have the choice. We are the ones with all the power to make that decision, to make the change in our lives, to say "Yes, I will go out into the desert, and I will listen for the voice of the prophet who is calling out to repent, the voice of one in the desert calling me to make straight the way of the Lord in the desert of my heart." We are the only ones who can make that choice.
The voice of John the Baptist rings throughout the centuries and continues to cry out in the heart of each and every believer in Christ, of each person who is baptized into Jesus Christ. The voice of the Baptist is there crying out full-throated and unsparingly. It is just a question of whether we will hear it. It is sort of like what they say about noise: If a tree falls out in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make any noise? If John the Baptist cries out in your heart and you refuse to hear it, is there really a voice that is there? Are you willing to listen? He is crying out to repent, to look around you, and to change your life. Jesus Christ speaks in your heart today and says, "What did you go out into the desert to see?" The one who is the voice that God sent into the world to prepare the way? Or did you just look for a voice that was going to tell you what you wanted to hear?
If you went out to find a prophet, then you have to expect that he is probably going to tell you something that is going to be difficult, something that is going to call for a change, something that is going to require repentance. If you go out looking for a reed swaying in the wind or someone dressed in fine clothes, then they are going to tell you whatever you want to hear. Which way is the wind blowing? "If you are a person who wants to live a life of penance, then we will preach a message of penance. If you are a person who wants to live an easy life, then we will preach the message for one who wants to live an easy life," - a reed swaying in the wind, blown in whatever direction the wind is shifting. One who is going to be dressed in fine clothing is certainly not going to call anybody to a life of penance because they themselves are unwilling to live it.
Saint James tells us to take as our example the prophets. The greatest of the prophets is John the Baptist, out in the desert living his life for Christ. And so, when James tells us in the second reading that we are not to complain and we are not to judge, look at John the Baptist out in the desert eating grasshoppers and wild honey, dressed in camel’s hair. He was not complaining – he was looking at the Lord. He was rejoicing that the day of the Lord was at hand.
And so it is for each one of us: the day of the Lord is at hand. Today can be a day of the Lord for each one of us if we are willing to hear the voice crying out in the desert of our hearts, if we are willing to change our lives, if we are willing to follow the example of the prophets, if we are willing to look for the Lord. Are we willing to seek the Christ? Are we willing, like John the Baptist in his prison, to come to the Lord (or send his envoys) as he did? For each one of us, we can do it individually and say, "Are you the One?" But we already know the answer to that. We know who He is. Now the only question is are we willing to accept Him? Not just accept Him theoretically and say that we know He is the Lord, but accept Him practically and change our lives so that the lived-out reality of our lives matches what we proclaim and what we believe in our minds. Are we willing to change our heart so that it is in conformity with what we profess on our lips? Are we willing to hear the voice of the prophet out in the desert calling us to change, calling us to repent, because we know the One in whom we believe? The day of the Lord, for each one of us, is at hand.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.