John the Baptist

If you grew up in the 1970s, like me, you will perhaps remember the early moments of the musical Godspell, when St John the Baptist sings ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord.’ It’s an arresting entrance, interrupting the cacophonous ‘Tower of Babble’ with a simple yet cryptic message.

Today’s focus in our reflections and in our worship is St John the Baptist, and that message is a good place to start. We should notice immediately that it was not, in fact, St John, who came up with the slogan. The words are those of the prophet Isaiah. All four gospels link them to the ministry of John the baptiser. This was what he came to do, to prepare the way of the Lord. That was how he himself understood his role, and how the church has understood it ever since.

For John, there was a clear way to go about this. The obstacles that stood in God’s ways were (and are) human sinfulness in all its varieties. Selfishness, greed, injustice, and violence called (and call) for repentance, a comprehensive rejection of the past and re-orientation of life around God’s commands. John co-opted a ritual to enact this repentance – baptism. Its double-symbolism of death and re-birth, of cleansing and purification, meant (and mean) nothing less than total conversion.

Many people these days think that repentance is mostly about feeling guilty and ashamed. That’s really not the case. There is no good in feeling guilty while keeping on doing the things that make you feel that way. In the long run, that is just a recipe for emotional disorder. What is needed is deep, real and lasting change, of heart, mind and behaviour.

As St John the Baptist recognised, this kind of change is not something that repentance alone can bring about. Repentance prepares us to receive what only God can give, the grace that changes us from the inside out, taking away both the fact of our guilt and the feelings that accompany it, and empowering us to live differently from now on.

That is the astonishing gift that we are preparing for in this season of Advent, the gift that comes first in the Christ-child at Christmas. We are all busy preparing for that celebration in lots of practical ways. If we listen to St John the Baptist, we should give some thought also to our inner preparations. What obstacles to God’s love and grace are there in our lives? Is it time to recover our baptism by repenting afresh from everything in us that stands in God’s way?

May God bless you all,