The Rector writes…
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (John 1:6). A tradition had grown up in Israel that the arrival of the Messiah would be heralded by the return of Elijah, the father of all prophecy. The signs associated with the conception and birth of John the Baptist marked him out as something special. Saint Luke describes him as “more than a prophet” (7:26) and John’s dramatic call to repentance (and to moral rectitude in high places) shows him as recapitulating and completing the long line of those who had been raised up to prepare a way for the Lord. The Baptist placed himself consciously outside the religious establishment of the time – he was to be found not in the Temple at Jerusalem but out in the Judean wilderness, clothed in animal skins and using whatever nature provided for sustenance. If there was something driven and scary about this cousin of Jesus, the ordinary people flocked to hear his teaching, recognising an urgency and an authenticity that both challenged and consoled. “’Comfort, my people, console them’, says your God. ‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem and call to her that her time of service is ended, that her sin is atoned for’” (Isaiah 40:1).
In a section from his “Ascent of Mount Carmel”, Saint John of the Cross speaks of how right it was for the Old Testament People of God to seek to understand the divine nature through revelations and visions interpreted by the prophets. He goes on to state very clearly, though, that once Jesus had come into the world “there is no longer any reason to question God as in the past. Nor need he speak and answer as he did then. When he gave us, as he did, his Son, who is the Word, he spoke everything to us once and for all in that one Word”. It is fundamentally important that we accept that in the incarnation of his Christ God has answered, for all times, the questions about himself. He has no other answer that he can provide as he has already “given us the All who is his Son”. Saint John goes on to complain about those who look for new revelations: he believes that in doing so they are committing “an offence against God by not fixing their eyes entirely on Christ, without wanting something new or something besides him”.
As this third Sunday in Advent has us concentrate on the witness of John the Baptist, the last of the line of prophets announcing the Messiah, and his immediate fore-runner, does that mean there is no need for prophecy? Clearly, the function of prophecy has changed. No one is now needed to prepare a way for the central moment of human history when God identified with our condition in such a radical and complete way as at Bethlehem. There is, though, an ongoing and crucial need that what Christ said and did should continue as a living Gospel until the final consummation of all things. Prophecy now is not a preparation for what God will do – rather it needs to be an explanation of what God has done and continues to do in his Son. Prophecy is about the revelation of Christ in our own times: it is essentially the work of the Holy Spirt, and it is a work in which every Christian should be involved. In so doing we borrow the words of Isaiah (which Jesus applied to himself): “the spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken, to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison, to proclaim a year of favour for the Lord”.
Obviously we should be asking God to send a fresh generation of great prophets. Our world and our own society need to hear God’s definitive Word spoken for all times. It would be so good if we had articulate teachers and preachers able to engage civil society where it most needs to be challenged and renewed. But prophecy cannot be shrugged off as the responsibility of a few. Each of us has our own duty to hand on the Gospel – sometimes in the simplest and smallest of ways. Christmas provides the opportunity never to miss an opportunity to explain what the season means to us: the cards we send, as an instance, should have Christian themes and imagery, and our commitment to attend Mass wherever we are should act as an encouragement to others. “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (John 20:21).