By Msgr. Joseph P. Calise
There are two messages in today’s readings that strike me as particularly important. One is a perennial message, and the other — although always true — is especially pertinent to Advent.
Once again, John the Baptist is at the center of the Gospel. This time, however, rather than being seen baptizing at the Jordan for the forgiveness of sins, he is in prison. He has been promising the coming of one mightier than him, announcing the presence of Christ as he did when he leapt in his mother’s womb at the Visitation.
Now, he steps aside and sends his disciples to Christ so that they can learn for themselves who Jesus is. John’s message of repentance was a call to action, not just words. This call is a challenge for all times.
When he spoke, he spoke of a change of heart that would lead to a new way of life. He challenged the Pharisees and Sadducees to show their repentance by good works as he called all to cast off a life of sin and embrace the freedom of forgiveness. He accepted prison rather than compromise.
Jesus affirms John’s message and dedication when He speaks to the crowds. He asks them what they hoped to see when they went to John — a reed swayed by the wind? Someone dressed in fine clothing? They knew John wouldn’t be swayed and his camel-hair clothing was anything but fine.
Jesus proclaims that no man is greater than John the Baptist because of his strong faith and prophetic message. There was no separation between his words and his works. When John’s disciples go to Jesus to ask if He might be the one mightier than John who was promised to them, Jesus answers by affirming John’s preaching.
He tells them, return to John to let him know not only what you have heard Me say, but what you have seen Me do. We each learn at some point in our life that actions speak louder than words. The actions Jesus refers to offer a message quite specific to Advent. Jesus tells John’s disciples to tell John,
“What you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.”
His answer is amazingly similar to the words of Isaiah in today’s first reading, “Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you. Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.”
Jesus affirms for John’s disciples that he is the Promised Messiah, the one mightier than their leader. John’s work is complete. The voice crying out in the desert, “make straight the way of the Lord” can be silent. The Lord is here, the promises of the Old Testament have been fulfilled and a new covenant begun.
Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill the old covenant and establish a new one based on His commandment of love. During Advent, we celebrate that fulfillment and seek the grace to affirm our desire to participate more fully in the new covenant. Remembering, of course, that — as always — actions speak louder than words.
Msgr. Calise is the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka and Transfiguration Parish, Maspeth.