Visual representations of John the Baptist often have him pointing to Christ. Artists have enjoyed extending his bony forefinger, and there is no question who commands the center of attention. Albeit the last of the great prophets, John understands that the coming one must eclipse his mission. Though he may question if his cousin really is the Christ, he is very sure that he is not.
Next to the sunken baptistery at St. John’s Abbey stands a seven-foot bronze sculpture of John the Baptist. He is gaunt, clothed only with animal skins, which attests to his ascetic life in the wilderness. His right hand points the way—in this case toward the water through which one is joined to Christ.
The texts for the second Sunday of Advent tell of the forerunner who prepares the way of the Lord. Malachi uses imagery of cleansing and refining; the messenger who prepares the way will focus on purifying the religious leaders so that they may “present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (3:3).
Luke’s portrayal of the Baptist echoes this stringent message. Repentance and cleansing are necessary preparations for “the dawn from on high” to break upon them (Luke 1:78). God’s message of salvation can only come to those who know their need of forgiveness.
Advent is about experiencing ones lack, ones emptiness and lack of self-sufficiency. Holy longing surrounds this season, and when we are still enough, we awaken to our deepest need, which is to accept ourselves as forgiven and beloved. The message of Jesus gives light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death (v. 79).
Yet, most of us will do almost anything to keep from feeling our lack in this holy season. So we eat too much, buy too much, and cram the calendar too much. Even our gift giving is often about wanting others to think well of us rather than self-giving love. We have trouble “decreasing so that others may increase.” We need to learn a lesson from the Baptist.
John plays a critical role in the coming of Jesus, and he models for us what it means to point beyond oneself to the true light. His call to repentance, which literally means to change direction, remains at the heart of gospel proclamation. In humility, he knows his role in illumining the salvation of God. Let’s look where he is pointing in this season.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.