I was halfway through preaching a parish mission. One of those attending the evening services told me that she liked my sermons, but then complained that I was too mild and gentle. She advised me, "You must give them hell, Father." Not exactly my idea of preaching, nor, I imagine, was it that of John the Baptist.
True enough, his message was harsh and abrasive, as well we know. He even described his listeners as a brood of vipers. Surely a number of those hearing this would have walked away in anger and disgust. No doubt this would have been your reaction if your parish priest were to address you in these terms during your Sunday Mass.
In fact the Baptist was not giving them hell. Nor was he giving them heaven. His call to repentance had one purpose -- to show the way, provide an opening, to the Reign of God, the Kingdom of God, in their personal lives and in their land.
Above all, the Baptist was showing the people the way to Jesus, providing them with the opening to Jesus who in himself -- the Son of God made man -- embodied the Reign of God, the Kingdom of God.
In him, in his bodily form, lives the divinity in all its fullness, and in him you too find your own fulfilment. (Col.2.9)
The Kingdom is eloquently described in the Preface of the Solemnity of Christ the King:
A Kingdom of truth and life, a Kingdom of holiness and grace, a Kingdom of justice, love and peace.
Inevitably sinful obstacles to embracing Jesus of the Kingdom and to being embraced by Jesus of the Kingdom had to be identified in order that they might be removed. This is what John meant by repentance.
John the Baptist must have been delighted with those of his listeners who asked him,
What must we do?
This would thrill any preacher. Here was an eagerness to go beyond listening to the preaching. Here was a willingness to apply the will of God to their own lives -- knowing full well this would mean changing attitudes, ambitions and behaviour.
The 'Give-them-hell-lady' would not have been in such company. She was rather like the Pharisees who thought themselves to be righteous and despised others. Such people don't want from the preacher what they believe others need to hear. They recognise no obstacles to grace in their lives -- no need to change. All of us, including preachers, must beware that we do not adopt this attitude of distancing ourselves in this way from others in the pews or elsewhere.
We have reached mid-Advent -- the season when we prepare for the celebration of Christmas. This is also a season for celebrating the coming of Jesus into our lives. 'What must we do?' is a question that occupies us greatly as we consider preparing our homes and plan every form of festivity -- eats and drinks, greetings and presents for family and friends.
Amidst all this activity, can we find the time and inclination to ask Jesus, "What must I do?" by way of a spiritual preparation for his coming into our lives, of our coming into the life of the Kingdom of Jesus? What are the obstacles to this coming about? What are the areas in our lives that call for repentance? Who can help us to find answers?
John the Baptist spoke in terms of the justice that should characterise the Reign of God on earth. In so doing he confronted the patterns of injustice of his time and place that were tolerated as normal. We must do the same and in the particularity of our own individual lives, both as private persons and as people living in society.
In distancing ourselves from others, in closing ourselves to them, in being injurious to them, we are placing obstacles to the Lordship of Jesus over us. During the season of Advent the Reign of God is being heralded to us. It is for us to discern and discover what this is saying to us and then to act upon it. This is the only valid spiritual preparation for our celebration of Christmas.