In today’s Gospel, St. John the Baptist finds himself in prison for having aroused the anger of the King with his harsh words of rebuke and warning. This is one of the most important tasks of the prophets: to call to a conversion of the heart and to preach against sin and injustice (cf. CCC, 2581). The prophet must proclaim the word that nobody wants to hear, but which we all really need to hear. The prophet makes us uncomfortable; he is a cause of annoyance for us because he tries to unearth our conscience, to bring it to light so that it can scrutinize our wrong actions.
For this reason, the prophet becomes a symbol of our conscience. In fact, he becomes an adversary to our evil desires, like our conscience. According to St. Dorotheus of Gaza, Jesus spoke of this adversary, that is, of our conscience, when he said:
Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny (Mt 5:25-26).
St. John found himself in prison for having accused the King of his sins, for having been a witness to the truth. His imprisonment was a cause for merit because it was a testament to his fidelity. But if we don’t listen to our conscience, represented by the prophet St. John the Baptist, our conscience will betray the judge, who is Christ, and we will be placed in the prison of purgatory until we have been purified of our disobedience.
St. John the Baptist “completes the cycle of prophets begun by Elijah” (CCC, 719). Elijah, who arose like a fire, and whose word burned like a torch (Sir 48:1), appeared in Israel about 850 years before the birth of Jesus, and is “the father of the prophets” (CCC, 2582). During the eight centuries between Elijah and St. John the Baptist, there were 16 prophets, and their words form an essential part of the Bible. In addition to the call to conversion, the prophets had the task of forming the faith of Israel and of offering to the people a fervent example of prayer. However, the culmination of their ministry is found in their many prophetic announcements of the coming and the life of the Christ-Messiah who was to bring definitive redemption not only to the people of Israel, but to all the nations of the world.
An example of such a prophecy is found in today’s Gospel, in the passage cited by Jesus in the book of the prophet Isaiah, the prophet par excellence during the season of Advent. The text announces that at the coming of the Savior the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy (Is 35:5-6). Jesus cites this text to respond to the question of the disciples of St. John the Baptist. St. John had sent them to Jesus to ask if he was really the Christ. Jesus responds saying “yes”, and takes as a testimony the prophetic words enunciated by Isaiah. He responds to St. John, who was a prophet, with the words of another prophet. Since it is the same Holy Spirit which fills and speaks through the prophets, Jesus knew that St. John would immediately understand his statement.
However, St. John the Baptist was more than a prophet (Mt 11:9). While the other prophets had announced the Christ centuries before his actual coming, John the Baptist was the definitive Precursor who personally showed Him to us. He is the messenger announced by the prophet Malachi (cf. Ml 3:1) who would prepare the way before the Lord. He prepares this way calling us to conversion. Since the principle goal of the coming of the Lord is for him to dwell in our hearts, St. John prepares a way calling us to repentance. St. John wants to prepare our hearts precisely for the coming of the Lord, and we prayed at the beginning of this Mass to stimulate our hearts to prepare a way for Him to enter. This means that we as well have a prophetic task; we as well are called to be prophets—to announce Christ to ourselves and to others, and to prepare a way to welcome him through faith, hope, and charity.
But the best way to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ offered to us by St. John consists in his humility. It is he who says that Christ “must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30). The road offered to us by John the Baptist is, in the end, quite simple. It consists in the humble recognition of our smallness, but also in the great and merciful goodness of God. Let us pray that this humility can truly purify our hearts for the coming of him who is gentle and lowly of heart (Mt 11:29).
(Translated from the original Italian by B. Gonzalez.)