Why is there all this fuss about John the Baptist? Why is he so important that the celebration of his birth overrides the ordinary Sunday mass? We are told that he was the precursor, the one who introduced Jesus to the people. But surely Jesus could have introduced himself and just stated, 'I am the messiah': why the need for this guide?
The answer lies in our blindness. Often we are so wrapped up in our society that we cannot see what its real needs are, and what sort of person can meet them. John the Baptist is one of those figures in history who stand apart from society and gain the insight which allows them to judge society. John spent most of his adult life in the wilderness, abstaining from alcohol, living on locusts and wild honey, and dressed in a camel skin, which recalled the dress of Elijah, another great prophet from Israel's past who was also ablaze with a reforming zeal.
This craggy figure, like the Mandelas, the Dorothy Days and Solzhenitsyns of today, refused to be fooled by the spin which denies the evil around us and pretends there is peace when no peace exists. He taught 'the whole people of Israel' to see the rottenness at the heart of their society, and then to acknowledge their sins and repent by being baptised in the waters of the Jordan.
Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees, so that any tree which fails to produce good fruit will but cut down and throw on the fire.
He was a prophet who had the courage to challenge the people and teach them what they really needed, but he was more than a prophet because he showed them how to find the one who could bring them salvation. He pointed away from himself to Jesus, the greater one, the only one who could deal with sins at the deepest level through the baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit which he would undergo when he offered himself in sacrifice upon the cross. As Jesus passed by, John showed them where to look:
Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
John not only taught them how much they needed a saviour, but then through his particular witness he helped them to see the contrasting way in which Jesus brings salvation to people standing under the judgement of God. In Christ God comes close to his people, so close that he was willing to submit himself to John's baptism as a sign of solidarity with sinful humanity. So close that he did not live in the desert, but mixed with the crowds in the towns and villages of Galilee. He did not fast alone but spent his time eating and drinking with sinners; he is not only the messenger of God's wrath, but in himself he makes present the good news of the salvation of God.
John's witness is so important for understanding Jesus that not only does the New Testament present them in the Gospels as inseparable at the beginning of Jesus ministry, but Luke shows us how even before his birth John leapt for joy in his mother's womb at the approach of Jesus carried by his mother Mary.
John's witness continues to play a crucial role for us. In a society which finds judgement offensive and yet craves to find ways of dealing with its guilt, which denies sin but demands forgiveness, John shows us that forgiveness is not possible unless you first recognise that there is something that needs to be forgiven. No forgiveness without judgement first. John binds so that Jesus may loose us.
Even in his cruel death, slain by an unjust king, John bore witness to Jesus. As the preface for today's mass says:
You found John worthy of a martyr's death, his last and greatest act of witness to your son.
We need John enlighten us, so that we can see our need for repentance and then to recognise the one who can save us. No wonder we celebrate his birth with such honour, for before the kingdom of God appeared,
I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen.