"What should we do?
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise....
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming..."
We get confused, don't we when we try to discriminate among all the conflicting voices clamoring for our attention? Political candidates claim unique access to truth while expressing opinions which sound distressingly similar to one another. Words like change, transparency, growth, turnaround and integrity fade away the moment we hear them. We have become immune. We too speak words which are disconnected from their meaning. Our expectations at best, are flat. Or worse, absent.
But John the Baptist understood a word...one Word. Exploding into human history in a particular place at a specific time, the Word. John knew that his was the voice preparing for the Word, prepared before birth to hear, recognize and proclaim. But even two thousand years ago, people had trouble distinguishing between the voice and word.
Intriguing to ponder- the separation between word and voice and meaning.
While praying the Office this morning I meditated on an excerpt of St. Augustine's sermon on this Gospel passage on that very subject.
Take away the word, the meaning, and what is the voice? Where there is no understanding, there is only a meaningless sound. The voice without the word strikes the ear but does not build up the heart...
In my search for a way to let this message reach you, so that the word already in my heart may find place also in yours, I use my voice to speak to you. The sound of my voice brings the meaning of the word to you and then passes away. The word which the sound has brought to you is now in your heart, and yet it is still also in mine.
When the word has been conveyed to you, does not the sound seem to say: The word ought to grow, and I should diminish? The sound of the voice has made itself heard in the service of the word, and has gone away, as though it were saying: My joy is complete. Let us hold on to the word; we must not lose the word conceived inwardly in our hearts.
Do you need proof that the voice passes away but the divine Word remains? Where is John’s baptism today? It served its purpose, and it went away. Now it is Christ’s baptism that we celebrate. It is in Christ that we all believe; we hope for salvation in him. This is the message the voice cried out.
Because it is hard to distinguish word from voice, even John himself was thought to be the Christ. The voice was thought to be the word. But the voice acknowledged what it was, anxious not to give offence to the word. I am not the Christ, he said, nor Elijah, nor the prophet. And the question came: Who are you, then? He replied: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way for the Lord. The voice of one crying in the wilderness is the voice of one breaking the silence. Prepare the way for the Lord, he says, as though he were saying: “I speak out in order to lead him into your hearts, but he does not choose to come where I lead him unless you prepare the way for him.”
What does prepare the way mean, if not “pray well”? What does prepare the way mean, if not “be humble in your thoughts”? We should take our lesson from John the Baptist. He is thought to be the Christ; he declares he is not what they think. He does not take advantage of their mistake to further his own glory...
John's was the kind of calling I feared as a new Christian; the fear that kept me from inviting Jesus completely into my heart and soul.
What if I am asked to give up everything?
What if I am asked to live out my life alone?
What if I am asked to subject myself to persecutions and to unnamed tortures?
Intellectually, I understand that one so filled with the holy spirit while still an unborn babe that he jumped with the joy of infused grace at the approach of Jesus in the womb of Mary, has access to wisdom that I do not.
But when I think of the man, John the Baptist, I cannot get past living in the desert.. alone, eating locusts and honey, a man seemingly so consumed by his mission that he is aware of nothing else.
A man with the courage to declare unlawful the marriage of the most powerful man in the land and to do so publicly.
I am unable to imagine, visualize, even to grasp a faith like his, devotion and trust like his. The Renaissance masters felt the same way, I think. They painted and sculpted his face as tortured and ravaged.
But could they and I be completely wrong?
Could his have been one filled with the glory of the Word; peaceful, even beatific?