As presented in scripture, John the Baptist is quite the imposing character. He was not exactly the most “normal” of people, living in the desert as he did, dressed in camel skin and subsisting on locusts and wild honey, shouting at people to repent. Honestly, when one encounters someone equally non-conformist today, one is most likely to cautiously cross the street in order to avoid him. Yet, there must have been something about him and his message that made people stand up and pay attention. Not only did people not run from him, they followed him, eager to listen and eager to be baptized as a sign of their new life. Some even thought that he was the promised Messiah. He quickly set them straight, however, telling his followers that “after me is coming someone who is more powerful than me, and I am not fit to kneel down and undo the strap of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mk 1:7-8) You can almost see the frustrated John shaking his head at the people, thinking, “You fools, don't you see? Don't you understand? He's coming - the one you have been waiting for all your lives. Time is growing short. You have to get ready. You need to change your lives. Now!”
John still speaks to us today, and perhaps we are an even more stubborn audience than the one he faced 2000 years ago. After all, we have heard this message of John the Baptist year after year. We know that Jesus came and we celebrate it every year with all of our favorite Christmas traditions. We pray, we light the Advent wreath, we sing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night.” This is all well and good; but, do we change? Or do we breathe a sigh of relief when December 26th comes, thinking “Thank God that is over for another year!” and go back to our pre-advent ways?
It can be difficult to focus on the spiritual aspects of advent. Lent seems so much more conducive to prayer and fasting and sacrifice. The month of December requires much from most of us. There are celebrations to attend, children's pageants to get ready for, presents to buy, decorations to put up, and cards to send. The “things to do” list seems to take on epic proportions. The question of “are you ready?” prompts a mental overview of the tasks that still need to be done before Christmas arrives, rather than a reflection on our inner preparation.
Yes, John is shaking his head at us as well. “Don't you get it? He's coming. Time is growing short. You need to get ready. Now!” John doesn't care about the state of our Christmas decorations. I imagine Jesus doesn't care much, either. They don't care about our famous Christmas fudge or how many presents are under the tree. They do care, however, about the state of our souls. Most of us don't live in constant anticipation of the end of time, the way the first generation Christians did, but for each of us individually, the end is near. We never know when death may come to us. We may live one more day or eighty more years, but in either case, life is short. The time given to us is short. Each year, in this season of advent, John the Baptist comes back to remind us, his voice shouting out to us to get ready, to repent, to change our ways. Today.