December 4, 2016
Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
As every year, on the Second Sunday of Advent, the liturgy presents us with the figure of John the Baptist, the first of two great figures who accompany our Advent journey.
To help us recognize him, Matthew, firstly, gives us information about his attire: John was clothed with camel hair, with a leather belt around his waist (Mt. 3:4). It is not simply a statement, nor a characteristic without importance, but an obvious reference to the dress of the prophet Elijah, who is described, at the very beginning of his mission, as “a man covered with hair, with a leather belt around his waist” (2Kings 1:8). By this coupling of attire, the evangelist, it appears he wants to say: behold, Elijah has returned, and this is the sign awaited for centuries, the sign that affirms unequivocally that the Messiah is coming. Because according to the prophecy of Malachi (Ml. 3:23), before the “great and terrible day of the Lord” the Lord would have sent the prophet Elijah.
Later (Mt. 11:10; 17:10 -13), Jesus will confirm this same identification between Elijah and John.
This means that, with the appearance of John in the desert, all messianic expectation of the people of Israel is to come to pass, something great is about to happen.
Such news creates movement, expectation, reawakens hope: the people go into the desert, the place of conversion and listening, to see this new Elijah sent from heaven.
And in the desert John “preaches” (3:1) just this, the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
That is, he confirms the good news, which all were awaiting, the news that God comes next, Who keeps His promises, Who is going to visit His people. “He is the one who comes after me…” (3:11), says John.
If it is so, if the Kingdom is truly at hand, then it is necessary to prepare oneself to receive it, and this is precisely the task of the Baptist: the evangelist Matthew is careful to place here the prophecy of Isaiah (Is 40:3), in which a mysterious and anonymous voice asked the people to prepare the way on which the Lord would return. Look no further, this voice is now heard, and it is the voice of the Baptist. Everything has the tone of a fulfillment that begins to happen.
It is time to get ready. How?
The Baptist gives some very simple and essential directions.
First, he warns of a great danger: that of thinking to be ready.
It is the danger of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt 3:7ff), who appear here for the first time in the Gospel. John interprets their thought, which is nurtured on the idea that it is enough to belong to a people, a tradition, to feel secure, to feel all is well: “do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” (Mt 3:9). It does not serve anything to invoke this.
So the real obstacle to meeting the Lord, paradoxically, is not sin, but the presumption of being the just.
John, moreover, does not demand doing anything special: it is not necessary to fast, to practice asceticism, or to perform rites. Simply, above all, one needs to be converted.
The word conversion is a keyword in today’s Gospel: it occurs three times.
What does it mean to convert? It is that which makes people spontaneously flock to John: “They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.” (Mt. 3:6). Converting means entering into the humble attitude that recognizes one’s unworthiness, the evil that lives within, one’s need for salvation that opens one to the mercy of the Lord.
This, for the evangelist Matthew, is the only way to prepare the way of the Lord.
It would seem so simple, and yet we know that it is not so…
Finally, the Messiah awaited by John the Baptist is first of all a judge and we understand this by the images that he uses to describe him: the axe laid to the roots that cuts the trees that do not bear fruit (v.10); the winnowing fan that clears the threshing floor and burns the chaff (v.12). They are images of a judge who shows no mercy, but who solves the problem of evil and sin just as everyone expected, just as man, alone, can imagine: eliminating sin and the sinner. They are words charged with violence …
It will not be so and the first to be amazed by this truly new Messiah will really be John (Mt. 11:3). And this will be his personal conversion. And, perhaps, it should also be a little bit ours.