When we are baptised, and again at our Confirmation, we are anointed to share in Christ's threefold ministry of prophet, priest and king. And a great deal of modern theology, especially modern Catholic theology, emphasises that the Church must have a 'prophetic' role in the modern world.
Perhaps especially in this season of Advent, as we prepare ourselves to celebrate Christ's first coming two-thousand years ago, and as we look forward with renewed hope to the time when Christ will come in glory, we should also ask ourselves how we are called to prepare the world, too, for the coming of Christ. What is it, in other words, for us to share in the prophetic ministry?
John the Baptist was the last and greatest of the prophets, the bridge between the Old Testament and the New; and perhaps the most important thing about him is that he always points away from himself and towards Christ. He vociferously denies that he is the Messiah, refuses to accept any title or status for himself, but rather directs all the attention of those who listen to his message towards the One who is to come, the Light of the World.
We, too, must begin our task of prophecy by remembering that we are not called to this ministry in order to express our own opinions, to bask in the adulation of admiring listeners, or even -- as perhaps is more likely in today's indifferent and cynical world -- to give ourselves something to moan about when our voice goes unheard. When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate the fact that it was God himself who came into our world, became a member of human society in order to redeem that society, precisely because humanity is incapable of saving itself.
We must not be afraid to admit that, left to our own devices, we are without hope, for our hope is in the one who is God, Jesus Christ our Lord. The message of Christmas is that we are not left to our own devices, for God is with us.
For all that is different about our world from the way it was in Palestine two-thousand years ago, the one thing that seems always to be the same is the desperate need for hope. It is our job to bring to the world that message of hope, that death is not the end, that poverty, disease, hunger, fear and hatred will not have the last word; the message of John the Baptist, in fact:
Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.
So dare we share in John's mission? The story the Gospels relate about John the Baptist may seem strange and even alienating, with a central figure we might find preposterous, or possibly frightening. Should we meet such a figure today, would we not mock him, or lock him away in a mental hospital, protecting ourselves as we so often do from anything that challenges our comfortable world-view with a combination of laughter and violence?
No doubt John the Baptist faced scorn and hatred during his ministry -- we get just a hint of it coming from the Pharisees in today's gospel reading -- and in this way too his life pointed towards Christ, who died under an onslaught of hatred and mockery. What we need to ask ourselves is whether we are aligned with those who find John today a ludicrous and despicable figure.
Even some who profess to admire Jesus Christ will strongly dislike John the Baptist, seeing him as 'too Old Testament', too out-of-touch, too unreal. Yet if John always pointed towards Christ, then to despise the one is to despise the other, and the Jesus that such people claim to admire must be a false Christ of their own invention.
So we must be willing, every one of us, to be victims of mockery and intense dislike just as much as John the Baptist; for this is what it is to be a prophet. Let us not get carried away with romantic ideas about what it is to be a voice crying in the wilderness, though: we are not Winston Churchill in the 1930s, waiting for an opportunity to say 'I told you so'; we are not glamorous rebels, icons of disaffected youth like Che Guevara or Kurt Cobain.
Some of this romanticism has infected the normally-sober world of biblical scholarship, for students of the Old Testament prophets often like to quote the saying that a prophet was 'not a foreteller but a forth-teller', not someone who could foresee the future but one with a radical new message for the present.
Though there is an element of truth in this, it becomes clear when one reads the prophetic books that for the most part the prophets were not so much calling for a radical overhaul of Israelite society as reminding the people of God of their obligations, re-calling them to their vocation. No doubt they seemed like tiresome nags to those who had turned from the God of their fathers to false idols, especially the false idols our own society continues to worship: power, wealth, sex and national pride.
This is the ministry in which we share: not a glamorous one, not one that will bring us admiration and popularity, but -- for the most part -- dislike, scorn or, if we are lucky, indifference. Yet just as John the Baptist's ministry was vindicated by the coming of Christ, a coming that has truly brought joy to the world, so our prophetic ministry will be vindicated when he comes again in glory.
We are, after all, foretellers and not just forth-tellers, because we point with our whole lives towards the coming of Christ, and he is the future.