As we celebrate the birth of a prophet, we learn about the person and mission of John the Baptizer from two prophecies—the first one made by the Archangel Gabriel and the second by John’s father at his birth. I will first summarize the elements of the prophecies: He will be great before the Lord, He will be filled with the Holy Spirit—therefore he shall abstain from wine and liquor; He will turn many to the Lord their God, in the spirit and power of Elijah, turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, and preparing the Lord’s people for his advent. He will be a prophet, who will give people knowledge of salvation through repentance and forgiveness of sins, as the Light of God dawns on those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death. What a marvelous litany of graces! Only Christ Himself had greater things said of Him before his birth.
I want to focus on the word “turn,” for this is at the heart of John’s mission. He will turn many to the Lord their God, and turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. He will do this ultimately by turning them toward the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. But first he has to turn them inward, that is, he has to get the people to recognize and acknowledge their sinfulness, so that they can turn away from evil and selfish behavior. One can turn to God only after one has turned away from evil—if you try to skip the repentance part and go directly to God, the first thing He will show you is your sins, so there’s no short cut! God is a God of truth, and sin must be dealt with before a personal and intimate communion can develop. This double turning is the knowledge of salvation through forgiveness that the prophet was born to declare.
But this turning from sin and turning to God is, in its fullness and depth, a rather complex and profound matter. That is precisely because it is a spiritual, ontological matter and not a legal or merely ritual one. It’s easy enough to say “I repent,” and even mean it, and then receive absolution, but still not be securely turned toward God. It’s not enough simply to perform the proper ritual. If you repent and honestly confess, you will be forgiven the guilt of your sin, but it may be that the necessary transformation still has not taken place. It may be that the will itself has not yet been reached by grace, for the will has not sufficiently reached out to grace. It still keeps it self-ward orientation, still is not sufficiently turned. Forgiveness is ours for the asking, but the deep healing of the soul can be a long process.
This mystery is too profound to articulate well in a short reflection, but it has been poetically expressed by Kathryn Mulderink in a sonnet entitled, De Nocte, i.e., Of Night. (To obtain her book of poetry, which I recommend, click here.) What she’s saying is that what Scripture calls “the mystery of iniquity” goes so deep into the human soul that no superficial or even standard treatment can fully turn toward God that which was first turned away by original sin and later through numerous choices. The remedy must be a radical one. She writes:
“There’s a dark that illumines the darkness we are
In the subterranean chambers beyond sin,
Where subtler poisons deface, debar,
And unravel every hard-won discipline.
Below repentance’s smoothly finished frame
Lurk nature’s will and inward contradictions
Though we’ve immolated sense in puring flame
And submitted to our cleansing benedictions.
More contrariety with God have we
Than sin which once we chose but now reject;
He is more than sinlessness and we
Cannot sublimate through force or intellect.
We must let go of us, arms cruciform,
To expose our hearts to Fire that transforms.”
Our genuine and deep healing, turning from sin and toward God will only come through a radical “yes” to God that takes us straight to the Cross, and only in that cruciform abandonment to God will the divine Fire be able to enter the darkest depths of our souls, purifying us of all the hidden sticky residues of our habitual sins, of all the ways that throughout our lives our saying “no” to God has profoundly disfigured us within.
This is why the prophetic mission of the Baptist is so important, so crucial. His work of turning hearts to the Lord, turning the disobedient to the way of wisdom, is not a mere correction of a few faults. It is preparing the way for God to reach down into the depths of the human soul, to the hidden place at which we are all connected to the primal rebellion of Adam and Eve, and to turn it back, uniting to the obedience of Him who became man for our salvation, who humbled himself unto death on the Cross in radical obedience to the will of the Father. To the extent that we all thus turn radically back to the Father, the power of the devil is utterly vanquished in this world.
This is the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins; this is the Light from on high entering the hidden places in our souls that are still in darkness and the shadow of death. This is guidance into the way of peace. But this way of peace and light, of mercy and salvation, is not an easy way. It is the way of the Cross, but it is the only way truly to know the mystery of God.
To have our hearts wholly turned to God is not a matter of simply saying “I’m sorry,” with God saying, “Don’t worry, it’s OK.” That is not salvation; that is not transformation. Rather, we must cry out from the depths, “O God, save me! I am lost!” as He reaches down and pulls us from the jaws of the dragon. It is being willing to mount the altar of the Cross and to allow fire from Heaven to consume the sacrifice. If we don’t know how evil sin is, we can’t know how marvelous mercy is. If we don’t tremble at the prospect of damnation, we cannot appreciate salvation.
So let us ask the Forerunner to intercede for us, to prepare the way of the Lord, to turn our hearts toward Him who longs to purify, heal, and transform us by his grace, for He loves us more than we can imagine. Thus we will not rejoice only at the birth of the prophet, but at the beginning of a new life in profound communion with the saving mystery of Christ.