Back in my younger days about 300 years ago, Saturday mornings were synonymous with cartoons on TV. Looney Tunes, Popeye, Fat Albert (which today would be politically incorrect to say), and a bunch of others were enjoyed by myself, my siblings, and millions of other youngsters, and those young at heart, throughout this country.
Two people who would have made great Saturday morning cartoon characters that never made it were, first, Big Papi, because he wasn’t yet born, and second, John the Baptist. John probably never made Saturday morning TV for kids because God didn’t want anyone laughing at him. Between his odd dress of camel’s hair, and his odd diet of locusts and wild honey, there would have been too much to chuckle at. But God nixed that idea from the minds of all cartoon creators, then and now. Maybe John the Baptist will still become one of the Avengers in today’s world of make-believe characters with super-human strength.
But as we know, John the Baptist is not make-believe. To make certain that we know this, it’s why the Gospel writer Luke grounds the ministry of John in history, alongside names like Pilate, Herod, Philip, Lysanius, Annas and Caiaphas. Those names represent a bunch of history at a certain time in a certain location. Luke’s purpose is not to raise them up in any way as models for his Gospel, for most of them will play a role in the deaths of both John and Jesus. The writer’s purpose is, though, to raise the Prophet who would have made a great Saturday morning cartoon character, John the Baptist.
Why is John so necessary to our faith, as we prepare for the coming of Jesus’ birth? Why not leave him out of the Gospel pages altogether, skip over his conception in the womb of St. Elizabeth, move past his birth and time in the desert, his preparation for Jesus, his baptism of Jesus, and John’s subsequent death? Why not leave his name out of history? We would still be saved in the Person of Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection, without John. That’s all we really need. God could do it all on his own. But obviously He chose not to. And John is a central figure since God’s plan unfolded with the inclusion of human beings playing certain roles in leading us back to God.
If God saw John as necessary as the Precursor to Jesus his Son, then John is necessary for us too. So, why is the Baptist necessary in history? Well, this is the first responsibility of John; to lead us back to God again, and again, and again with the poignant reminder of “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This Prophet is the serious voice chosen by God to preach the Good News, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” A voice not to be laughed at.
As we know so well in our Christian faith, these words of John go well beyond our Sunday attendance. This is where we begin our preparation for doing God’s work at the start of each week. An upcoming week that will include unexpected moments and surprises for many of us, whether good or not so good. A week that will present a normal routine in many respects, but not all the way through the entire week for any of us.
The message of John to prepare the way of the Lord without question begins with our proactive move toward repentance. This is the heart and soul of his message. But, preparing the way of the Lord for this upcoming week as we prepare for Christmas too, and the weeks to follow, is also preparation by way of works of mercy; preparation for forgiving another; preparation for being dedicated to a daily prayer life; it’s preparation for visiting the sick and homebound, which is the job of all the baptized.
So, John’s serious message a couple weeks before the birth of our Savior, is preparation of the whole person, body, mind and soul, for Jesus’ birth. But John begins always with repentance, going through Ernie’s Car Wash for the Soul, coming our sparkling clean, but expands to a continued commitment to prayer and good works.
John the Baptist’s second responsibility is to be the best example of the message he brings from heaven. We call this practicing what is preached. This is where John is perfect, leaving us an example of holiness and commitment to Christ that is second only to Blessed Mary.
Because of the apparent hardness of John’s message of repentance, or his language to the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them a “brood of vipers,” a group of snakes, a nickname for a criminal, what we can miss in John’s “Saturday morning” character is that he is a Prophet of the greatest devotion and love. If John was not a man of the greatest love, he would never prepare the way of the Lord, for God is love. And when we prepare the Lord’s way for others, we too practice what we are called to preach.
On this 2nd Sunday of Advent we look to John the Baptist, but also hear and listen to John and his message from above. We see how true he was to the words he preached, and how faithful he was to God’s mission. Heeding the message of the Baptist – mercy and good works – is solid preparation for our Savior’s birth.
He would have made a great Saturday morning cartoon character, or one of the Avengers. But he makes a far greater Prophet for Christ, with a Divine message we won’t find in any cartoons. Following the words of the Baptist this Advent will make certain our upcoming trip to Bethlehem will be filled with joy and glad tidings.