“As for you little child, you shall be called a prophet of God the Most High.
You shall go ahead of the Lord to prepare his ways before him,
to make known to his people their salvation.” (Luke 1:76-77)
These words taken from the canticle of Zechariah, known as the Benedictus, refer not to Jesus, but to his cousin, John the Baptist. Zechariah has doubted that his wife Elizabeth would be able to bear a son in her old age, and so he was struck dumb by the angel. For the whole duration of her pregnancy Zechariah was unable to speak. When the child was finally born, there was a dispute over the name of the child. In fulfilment of the angel’s message, Zechariah confirmed in writing that the child’s name would be ‘John.’ At that very moment Zechariah’s power of speech returned and, filled with the Holy Spirit, he breaks out into the canticle quoted above. One might wonder about the significance about the name John. John is the anglicised version of an ancient Hebrew name meaning “The Lord [Yahweh] is gracious.” John was to be a messenger announcing the graciousness of God’s plan for the salvation of the world. The fullness of God’s grace was to be poured into the life of a young woman, Mary, whose ‘yes’ to God would prove to be the turning point in the history of the human race.
As we settle into Advent, the readings enjoin us to reflect on this mysterious character who came to be known as John the Baptist, on account of his practice of baptising (literally, ‘plunging’) penitents in the river Jordan, as a symbolic act of their conversion. There was little refinement in this firebrand: wearing a coarse camel hair garment and surviving on the most frugal diet of locusts and wild honey, he established himself in the wilderness of Judea. If someone exhibited such eccentricities today they would most likely land themselves in institutional care! Holy, ascetical and fearlessly outspoken, John was a highly controversial figure in his own time too, as we see in today’s Gospel when he challenges the Pharisees and Scribes for their hypocrisy. He had renounced the trappings of the world in order to live solely for God. Moreover he wanted others to seek fulfilment in God, rather than in the things of this world. He appears as the last and greatest of Israel’s prophets, the bridge connecting the Old and New Testaments, who succeeded in calling countless thousands to repentance.
The liturgical season of Advent marks the time of spiritual preparation by the faithful before Christmas. Advent begins on the Sunday closest to the Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (Nov. 30). It spans four Sundays and four weeks of preparation, although the last week of Advent is usually truncated because of when Christmas falls. The celebration of Advent has evolved in the spiritual life of the Church. The historical origins of Advent are hard to determine with great precision. In its earliest form, beginning in France, Advent was a period of preparation for the Feast of the Epiphany, a day when converts were baptized; so the Advent preparation was very similar to Lent with an emphasis on prayer and fasting which lasted three weeks and later was expanded to 40 days. In 380, the local Council of Saragossa, Spain, established a three-week fast before Epiphany. Inspired by the Lenten regulations, the local Council of Macon, France, in 581 designated, that from Nov.11th (the Feast of St. Martin of Tours) until Christmas fasting would be required on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Eventually, similar practices spread to England. In Rome, the Advent preparation did not appear until the sixth century, and was viewed as a preparation for Christmas with less of a penitential bent.
The Church gradually more formalized the celebration of Advent. The Gelasian Sacramentary, traditionally attributed to Pope St. Gelasius I (d. 496), was the first to provide Advent liturgies for five Sundays. Later, Pope St. Gregory I (d. 604) enhanced these liturgies composing prayers, antiphons, readings, and responses. Pope St. Gregory VII (d. 1095) later reduced the number of Sundays in Advent to four. Finally, about the ninth century, the Church designated the first Sunday of Advent as the beginning of the Church year.
Every time we pray the ‘Our Father’ we make the petition, ‘Thy Kingdom come.’ What is this ‘coming of the Kingdom’ that we are praying for? The synoptic Gospels (ie. Matthew, Mark and Luke) speak often of the Kingdom of God/Heaven, and include many strange and varied parables to explain what this kingdom is like: a mustard seed, a drag net, a pearl of great price, treasure buried in a field, leaven mixed in dough, a wedding feast, wheat sown among darnel, among others. These mysterious parables indicate that the establishment of the ‘kingdom of God’ is closely connected to ourselves in this world, and yet they are clearly describing a reality that is also other-worldly. When Pontius Pilate confronts Jesus about the charge make against him that he purporting to be a king (and therefore challenging the authority of Caesar), Jesus says to Pilate “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world” (John 18:36). Similarly, the Magi’s search for the Messianic King of the Jews meant that while still a new-born infant Jesus’ birth filled the sham puppet-king Herod with terror. Christ, the King from whom all authority comes, was perceived by Herod as a rival claimant to the throne and one who had to be destroyed at all costs. The folly of Herod and Pilate was to imagine that Jesus’ Kingship consisted in a worldly, temporal realm, one that would seek to supplant them. If only they could have understood that what Christ wanted to freely offer them far exceeded the sum of all political power. If only they could have understood that Christ, far from being their enemy, was their surest benefactor and advocate, offering them a share in his eternal kingship. For these ungodly men, power was something to be seized by force and defended with violence.