JOHN the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: A voice of one crying out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you in water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
We all have a soft spot for Christmas. We have fond memories and lively hope of a season of songs, parties, gifts, good food, and good time. Because of this we often downplay, or altogether do not mind, the figure and the message of John the Baptist. He is so discordant with what we know and what we want Christmas to be. We are happy with the idea of “the wolf [being] a guest of the lamb, and the leopard [lying] down with the young goat” (Is 11:6). We dream of a babe “who shall judge the poor with justice, and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted” (Is 11:4). However, the austere figure of John the Baptist wearing a camel’s hair is so far from the dashing and fabulous appearances we cut ourselves with. Eating wild honey and locust is so much in contrast with roast meats, fruit cakes, and spaghetti that are common fare for the season. We want to indulge during Christmas so we do not pay heed to the Baptist’s call “produce good fruit as evidence of repentance” (Mt 3:8), much less with his threats of “the ax [lying] at the root of the trees” (Mt 3:10) and “the chaff [to be burnt] with unquenchable fire” (Mt 3:12).
But it must be stressed that Christmas does not come all of a sudden. It has to be preceded by Advent. The good things that we enjoy at Christmas were prepared for by people who toiled. So let us “force” ourselves to take John the Baptist more seriously and appreciate his message. We prepare the way of the Lord by taking away the hindrance for his coming, which is sin. That is why the core of the Baptist’s message is repentance. Nobody is exempt from repentance. Our claims to belonging to special groups in the Church will not do. Repentance also calls for immediate response. We do not have the luxury of time. Already the ax lies at the root of the trees. Repentance is not only saying I am sorry or being emotional about our sins. It should bear fruit, i.e. good deeds. These are not just deeds done out of charity, that is, according to what we can spare. Many times these good deeds are demanded by justice. They are due to the poor and the afflicted. St. Basil of Caesarea (329-379), one of the Fathers of the Church, emphatically said: “The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has no shoes; the money which you put into the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help but fail to help.”
One of the reasons why Christmas has been so commercialized and many celebrate it only in the material terms is that we are glossing over the season of Advent. Christmas has eaten over Advent. We consequently fail to heed to the figure and the message of John the Baptist. Instead of being a religious experience, many have only a consumeristic experience of Christmas. Thus many are exhausted by the Christmas season–the money is spent, the energy is gone, and we end up with health problems. Not many come out of Christmas renewed, saved and happy. Let us therefore listen to John the Baptist’s message of austerity, self control, repentance, and good works.
– Bp. Broderick S. Pabillo, DD, Auxiliary bishop of Manila
– (Dec. 4, 2016)