Over the past month, we have heard quite a bit from John the Baptist.
During the four weeks of Advent leading up to our celebration of Jesus’ birth, we heard his proclamation to us that we prepare the way for the Lord through penance and good works.
Last week, as we celebrated the baptism of the Lord, he witnessed the Spirit come down upon the waters in the form of a dove, the heavens open up and the voice of God proclaim that Jesus is the Beloved Son.
And, as we begin a new year, we hear from him once again. This time he is pointing Jesus out as the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world.
John the Baptist is an important figure in the gospels because he announces the coming of the Messiah. Many of Jesus’ earliest followers were disciples of John. The Church puts the message and example of John before us each year because he still has much to teach us, especially as we begin a new year. In particular, there are three points that we should take away from the gospel proclamation about John the Baptist - that we need to repent of our sins, that we must witness to the truth, and that we must put Jesus at the center of everything we do.
First of all, we need to give up our sinful ways. When John appeared along the banks of the Jordan River, he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He made it clear to all who approached him that, once baptized, they could not return to their former way of life. They needed to make a real and lasting change.
The message is the same for us two thousand years later. All of us have areas of our lives that do not reflect the love of Christ. Whether it be in our families, our schools or workplace, we fail to respect others, to show concern for those in need or to put the interests of others before our own. We all need to examine our consciences daily, to review our actions and to commit ourselves to doing better with the grace of God. Our faith is only real if it is making a difference in the way we speak and live. John the Baptist teaches us that we must make a real effort everyday to change our sinful behavior so that our lives can reflect the love of our Savior who came to die for us.
Secondly, John the Baptist teaches us that we must always speak the truth. Just as we struggle to avoid sin in our own lives, we must point out the ways in which our society fails to uphold the dignity of the person. Every day in our world, the rights of the poor are being trampled on, innocent people are killed and the powerful take advantage of the weak. As people of faith, we cannot stand idly by or keep silent. Otherwise, we will be condoning injustice. We must speak up to defend the innocent and the downtrodden because they are our sisters and brothers.
John the Baptist did this unceasingly during his life. He died because he dared to criticize King Herod for living with his brother’s wife. He spoke up because he recognized the importance of marriage and family life. Like John, we must never fail to defend the sanctity of marriage both by living good and holy family lives ourselves and by speaking out against the threats our society poses to marriage such as divorce and pornography. Our society needs people of faith with the courage to speak the truth or else more innocent lives will be lost and more damage will be done to the poor and needy.
Thirdly, Jesus must be at the center of all we do. John the Baptist understood that the reason he was sent was to give witness to the Messiah. His mission was not to gather disciples for himself but to lead others to Jesus. So, when Jesus did finally appear, he never failed to point him out to people and encourage them to follow him. When he was asked whether it distressed him that his disciples were leaving him to listen to Jesus, he replied “He must increase, and I must decrease.” John’s whole life was centered around preparing the way for Jesus so that, when he finally did appear, he was happy to fade into the background.
As individuals and as a parish community, we must ask ourselves daily the question: Is everything we are doing centered on Jesus or on ourselves? Are we more concerned about what people think of us or what Jesus would think of us? Are we more concerned about pleasing others or pleasing Jesus? It is very easy in the midst of all life’s little details to forget why we exist. It is easy to lose focus when our days are filled with so many activities. We must take time everyday to remind ourselves of what is most important - that we know, love and serve our Savior, Jesus. When we put Jesus at the center of our lives, everything else falls into place.
It is for good reason that John the Baptist is such a prominent figure in all the gospels and that the Church places his message before us so often during the year. At the beginning of a new year it is especially important to reflect on these three key elements of his message - that we repent of our sins, that we speak the truth with love and that we keep Jesus at the center of all we do. It is an unfailing formula for growing in holiness as individuals and for drawing others to Christ as a parish community.
So that we can have strength to live up to this challenge, we turn to the Lamb of God. He will come to us in the form of bread and wine at this table to nourish our souls. He is with us as we struggle to root out sin in our lives, speak the truth and keep our lives centered on him. We can trust that he will give us the grace and courage necessary to live up to our calling as his followers.